But of course you already ask your child questions! Questions like:
“How was your day?”
“What happened at school today?”
“What did you do all day?”
Only, you’ve learnt that there’s no point in asking questions because your child just mumbles something, or gives you the same sort of answers every day. Answers like:
“Just hung around.”
You ask and you ask, and there’s never a meaningful reply.
Maybe you need to change the questions…
You might want to try asking: “What was the most fun thing that happened at school?”
Your child is suddenly forced to concentrate, because this question needs a specific answer. He will think about was the most fun thing that happened at school, and will reply to your question. You will learn about the people in his class, how they talk think behave, what they think of your child and each other, what your child thinks of them. You will learn the oddities of various teachers, and how your child relates to them.
Suddenly, your question has opened up a whole world to you, and you find yourself inside your child’s world, looking at his life from his point of view.
What a wonderful thing to happen!
Earlier, you were a parent, doing his/her ‘duty’, asking after the child. But now, you’ve become a privileged person, taken behind the scenes to see how your child’s mind and heart work, to see how he is growing and developing.
Or you may choose to ask: “Who brought the most exciting food today? Did you get to taste it?” (In India, most children carry lunch from home, though they can buy food at school as well.)
She’s thinking, and telling you what her friends brought to school, who ate what from whom, who said what, what happened, how it worked, how the boys gobbled up some unfortunate’s food… Again, for as long as she’s answering your question, you’ve been included in her life, and you’re watching with her eyes.
There’s so much that goes on in school, in neighborhood playgrounds (you’ve been a child – you know!) on TV, at home – pick anything, and ask a specific question.
So why is asking questions such a cornerstone of parenting? Because:
1. You learn what’s going on in your child’s life – You learn whom he likes, whom he doesn’t like, you learn about situations he and his friends encounter and how they deal with them.
2. You see how your child is growing – You see how her mind works, and can think a little forward into the future to predict what problems of the mind and heart she is likely to have. You may find that she has very rigid ideas on wrongdoing being punished. But life rarely works so directly or obviously. You can clearly see that this is an area where you need to work with her to make growing up and dealing with the real world less difficult than it would be if she were to adhere to her rigidity. You can share stories, ask for her ideas, give her suggestions on how she can prevent or minimize troubles in this area.
3. Your child will listen to you – When you say, “Sometimes people say something and do something else,” he will be more likely to connect with what you are saying because you will give him an example from some incident in his life that he told you about. And he told you about it because you asked questions.
4. You can guide/counsel effectively – Mostly, parents have no idea of what’s going through their child’s mind. (Obviously! Parents are not mind readers.) But we feel compelled to maunder on about values and principles and priorities and all kinds of stuff. No wonder children switch off. They just don’t see the point of all the endless lecturing/prosing on/ nagging.
But now that you are asking specific questions, you can tailor your guidance to what your child really needs.
5. Your child begins to talk to you – Oh, bliss! 🙂 Yes, you might doubt that this will ever happen, but as you keep asking questions every day, your child will get used to sharing her life with you. The day will come when you get home to be deluged by “what happened today”. 🙂 Every life is a story, and if you have listened to the story for a while, even as audience, you become a part of the story. 🙂
6. You rekindle your connection with your child – Your child feels loved and valued because of the time and interest you show in his life. Suddenly, you go from being the parent held at arm’s length to someone who is ‘on your child’s side, in his camp, batting for him’. He will be much more likely to talk to you about the issues he is faced with, the problems he’s having, the plans he’s making…
So ask questions. But before you launch your question campaign, be aware (beware?) of:
1. Repeating questions – Don’t fall into the rut of asking the same questions all the time. If you formulate 5 questions and repeat them endlessly, they will assume the flavor of “How was your day?” You are a smart, interested, committed parent. You can come up with hundreds of questions. Please do so.
2. Judging your child’s answers – Your child shows you an empty lunch bag, but while talking, she lets slip that instead of eating her food, she gave it to her friend so she could show you an empty bag. Don’t jump down her throat. Relax. Let her keep talking. If you see this happen for a few days, you can ask her why she wants you to feel she’s eating her lunch when she isn’t – but till then, hold your peace. Don’t react to and judge everything that goes on. You are the audience. The audience gets to watch, is free to think, but can’t walk up to the actors and tell them what should be done. 🙂
3. Helping your child – There are numerous interpersonal issues that your child deals with, and as you ask questions, you will learn what they are. If you keep giving him instructions / guidance on what to do with whom in which situation to create a specific result, he will not develop these vital life skills. His body will grow, but his mind will diminish because he will become increasingly dependent upon you to provide solutions to his ‘problems’. You need to guard against your tendency to ‘help’ your child.
Ask questions. 🙂
Make sure you get all the parenting basics of 2012 by clicking on the “Sign me up!” button on the top right of the webpage – it’s free! 🙂
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
But parenting isn’t really all that difficult – you’ve been doing it for a bit now, and for all that you think you are doing some things ‘wrong’ and need help, you must acknowledge that there are many, many things that you’re doing ‘right’! 🙂 It’s just that you tend to devalue the things you do ‘right’ while focusing on the things you need to work upon. This gives you a falsely prejudiced view of yourself as a parent.
So maybe one of the goals or resolutions you need to add to your list for the year 2012 is that you will have a greater appreciation of yourself as a parent. You will admit to yourself the numerous times you’ve done a great job: whether it was handling your child’s misbehavior, answering a difficult question, helping him resolve a dilemma, supporting her through the heartache of broken friendships… :-).
As you triumph over adversity and tackle problems, you wonder if there is some way to focus on just a few things and still manage to get the most from parenting your child. I am convinced that this is not only possible but also desirable. When you focus on many things, there is a greater chance that you will either lose focus or get confused or just tire of the enormous effort it takes to keep track of them.
So I decided to inaugurate 2012 with a series on what I believe are the basics of parenting. I’ve tried to distill the basics into 5 Do’s.
1. Ask – ask questions.
2. Be – be who you are.
3. Do – do things with your child.
4. Explain – explain what is going on.
5. Respond – respond to the situation.
Over the next 5 days, I will share with you the details of how you can use these 5 basic actions over and over again, in multiple situations, to make a real difference to your parenting experience and your relationship with your child, no matter what his or her age might be.
Of course, there are hundreds of other things besides these 5 that you need to do as a parent. But I feel that these 5 easy-to-do things will go a long way to make parenting a fun experience for yourself, and your child.
Ensure you get to know more about these parenting basics by clicking on the “Sign me up!” button on the top right of the webpage – it’s free! 🙂
I look forward to hearing from you – your concerns, your stories, your experiences – whatever you’d like to share.
Happy 2012! I wish you a year of carefree parenting! 🙂
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
Responsible, according to the dictionary, means: answerable or accountable; having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.
Here’s a different take on the word. Responsibility = response + ability; the ability to respond (appropriately).
You want to raise a responsible child, so you tell her what to do in every situation. You feel you know the appropriate response, and she will be well taken care of if only she follows your instructions to the letter. But you cannot predict every situation.
I was to pick my daughter up from school after a performance that got over late in the evening. I went to the room from which I was to pick her up. She wasn’t there. I went to the office. Not there. I went to the rehearsal room. Not there. I went to the auditorium. Not there.
By now, I was getting frantic. The school had begun to empty, with most parents and children having left, and only a handful of teachers still there. I was going from room to room asking teachers if they’d seen my daughter.
The teacher who dismissed them from the rehearsal room after the performance said, “They were to get their make-up off and then go to the rooms from which you were to collect them.”
I went back to the room from which I had to collect her. “She hasn’t come in. Her stuff is not here,” the teacher told me. She gestured for me to take a look at the few bags that were still on the tables – my daughter’s bag wasn’t there.
I didn’t know what to do, and was beginning to panic. The school grounds are large, most of the lights had been extinguished, and she was nowhere to be found. A few children who’d seen me rushing hither and yon were kind enough to say, “We saw her some time ago, but we don’t know where she is now.”
I went back in a real tizzy to the room from which I was to collect her, to find her standing calmly next to the teacher. I sagged onto a chair in relief. “Where were you?”
“Mom, my friend took ill. When we went to take our make-up off, she began vomiting. I stayed with her, and then handed her over to her parents. Then I came here, and I’ve been waiting for you ever since. You’re late.” (This last in true parental-displeasure style. 🙂 ) I made my explanations, and we declared peace. I collected her (officially 🙂 ), and we did the rounds, visiting all the rooms and teachers I’d been to, to tell them that I’d found her.
For the umpteenth time, I was grateful to have a responsible child.
Unforeseen situations arise all the time. If you want your child to develop the ability to respond appropriately (responsibility), you need to follow only one rule.
Let him respond.
Don’t keep making rules for every situation: “If this happens, you should do that.” You will make hundreds, if not thousands of rules, which will only confuse your child.
Instead, give him a few general, standing instructions. You might say, “Try and get to a phone and call me or another responsible adult (your partner, parent, a family member), don’t go with strangers, don’t ride with anyone unless you have my (or your partner’s) express permission to do so, don’t take food/drink offered by people you don’t know, don’t try to help someone who seems in distress (so many of these are scams, and your child may get into trouble from trying to help)…”
You cannot dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. Let your child respond. Let him know that you have confidence in his ability to handle a situation. Obviously, he will not do what you would have done in his place. But you have 20 or more years on him! You’d probably have done much worse than him if you were confronted with the same situation when you were his age.
If his response doesn’t yield the desired result or creates a problem, talk about it. Instead of scolding him for his ‘wrong’ (not as effective as you/he would have liked it to be, actually) response, talk about what why his response was less than ideal. Remember, he may still think his response was perfect, while you might be the one thinking it could have been improved! 🙂
If he too, feels less than satisfied with his response, discuss it. He will learn to consider more things while making a response. He will learn to come up with more possible responses. He will learn to evaluate those responses better. He will get the opportunity to practice making appropriate responses.
All of this will enormously increase his ability to respond to a situation.
And you will be raising a responsible child. 🙂
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
You love your child. (Duh! 🙂 ) That makes you a loving parent. Most of the time, you try to be a nice parent as well. You put in a lot of effort to make your child happy, give him what he wants, and generally keep things as pleasant as possible between you both.
You are shooting yourself in the foot.
It took me years to realize that there is a big difference between being a loving parent and a nice parent. In fact, there are 5 big differences.
1. As a loving parent, you work from your beliefs and convictions and stay true to them. If you change your belief, it is for a good, solid reason. A nice parent works to get approval from the child.
As a loving parent, you might frown on your child breaking the curfew rules. As a nice parent, you might relent ‘this one time’, because you want your child to think you are nice. Or because you think you are being nice.
2. If you are a loving parent, you are consistent. You make rules, decisions and choices that follow a particular line of thinking, and your child finds it easy to understand what you are all about – what you expect from her, what she can expect from you, what you would approve and disapprove of, what you value and what you don’t, and so on.
To be a nice parent, you need to be an acrobat, swinging from one end to the other of a perpetually shifting circus ground. Since ‘nice’ is a response from your child, her response will depend upon her mood. When she is feeling good and you refuse her a request, you may continue to be a nice parent. When she is feeling crotchety, and you deny her a second helping of dessert, you may suddenly stop being ‘nice’. You’re not really sure of your ground.
Your child is unsure too – of himself and of you. He doesn’t really know what behavior is okay and what is not, since so much seems to depend on your reaction at a particular moment. And that is always unpredictable.
3. As a loving parent, you are in it for the long haul. This is why you may choose to withhold approval even when it is due – maybe because your child is getting addicted to approval, maybe because he needs to learn to appreciate rewards other than your approval, maybe because he needs to look beyond approval…
A nice parent responds with what feels good at the moment. If you are being nice, you may respond to your child’s tantrums by pleading or cajoling or yelling or giving in (this is the last time!) or holding your ground… – with whatever you think will make the tantrum stop soonest. The tantrums continue, because your child is not sure when he might get lucky and get away with it.
4. You may seem unnecessarily stern, even harsh, if you are being a loving parent. You may choose to stand back and see your child fall, let her face problems, without doing anything to help her. She may wonder if you really love her. (“If you love me, you will help me, take my troubles away, make it easy for me…”). That doesn’t bother you, because you are in the business of being a loving parent, not a nice one, and you go about your business as usual.
If you want to be a nice parent, you will always step in to ease things for her, till one day, circumstances will make it impossible for you to ‘make the troubles go away’. I don’t know what you’ll come up with at that time, but you might be able to swing something.
5. As a loving parent, you aren’t always nice. But then you don’t really care about being nice.
As a nice parent, I’m not so sure you’re a loving parent. But you want to be one! “I’m sure it’s possible to be both – loving and nice, isn’t it?” you ask.
Sure it’s possible to be both loving and nice – but only occasionally. Most of the time, you can only pick one.
So which do you want to be: a loving parent or a nice one?
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. Depending on how you deal with grief, you will help your child deal with it too.
At various times, and depending on your child’s personal preferences, you can employ different solutions to help your child cope with grief. These might be (but aren’t limited to):
1. Holding your child – Unfortunately, this is used too little once children grow beyond 5 – 7 years of age. Your teenage son may not feel comfortable if you give him a full-frontal embrace as you did when he was a child, but you can definitely put your arm around him, or hold his arm, or use touch effectively to convey your understanding of and sympathy with his feelings of loss.
2. Talking – Your child may want to talk, or not. It’s easier if she wants to talk, because you will be able to understand some of the emotions she is grappling with. But if she isn’t, you can still draw her out. Share a story where a child is dealing with loss. This could be a true story of how you or anyone else your child connects with, had to experience loss as a child, and how you (or the person) dealt with it. If there is no true story, share a fictional story. Stories are a great way to obliquely approach issues either you or your child is not comfortable talking about openly.
3. Dedicating a project – Consider dedicating a project to the departed person. Every time your child is taken over by searing grief, he could write about what is troubling him at that time. An example:
If your child can’t handle walking into a house where the dog that welcomed him home is no more, let him write about it in a diary, or draw a picture of it. Or locate a photo of the pet jumping up at him in welcome. These little remembrances can then be collected in some form which would act as a remembrance to the pet.
Slowly, as your child begins to deal with the memories, the reality of life with the one who is gone emerges. Instead of being only the ‘beloved’ dog, he also becomes the ‘naughty’ dog who always chewed your child’s toys, the ‘greedy’ one who stole sausages and cookies out of plates when no one was looking (and sometimes even when they were! 🙂 ), the ‘irritating’ one who had to be taken out twice to do his business late at night in the winters… Balance begins to be restored.
You can formalize the remembrance in the form of a photo album which is sent to close friends and family, or you may even consider enrolling them into the project. In this way, you may all help each other find healing, peace, and acceptance.
4. Creating rituals – You may find it helpful to create rituals – anything that gives a sense of order to your child. “Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so we’ll buy a rose every Sunday to remember her.” It could be much simpler. ““Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so every Sunday you could learn the name of one variety of rose (or draw her a card with a rose on it).” “He loved reading books, so we’ll buy you a book every month in memory of his love for books.”
You need to be careful when creating rituals – create and execute with a light touch; you don’t want your child getting obsessed with the performance of these rituals.
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. But your child may be feeling many other emotions which might take you by surprise. You might need to work hard to get your child even to acknowledge them, but most children do feel these emotions in small or large measure when a loved one dies.
These are the emotions you need to address if you want your child to be equipped with the means to handle loss, especially loss due to death:
1. Confusion – “What will happen now?” No matter how young your child may be, explain to her in a way she understands, what comes next. What will happen to the body? What happens to the dead person’s effects – clothes, toiletries, papers, car – all the detritus of life? What are the rituals your family will follow? What is their significance? How might these rituals be different from those your child is familiar with through movies, TV, story books etc? What happens to the person’s room / house?
Answering these questions will help her feel more settled about all the chaos that attends a death. It will help her to feel like she’s part of what’s going on. Depending upon the circumstances, you may even want her to share in some of these tasks / rituals, such as choosing a favorite photo, or deciding which memento she’d like for herself, or whom to give some of the effects to.
2. Fear – “I once did / thought / said something bad to / about the person who has died. If they are angry with me, will they come back to haunt me? Will they send me ‘bad luck’? Will they make me or someone else die?” Draw out your child to speak about these emotions. Again, stories are great for this. Then help him deal with the fear.
3. Anger – “Why did … have to die?” The subtext being: “Why now? Why this way? Why not someone else?” Explain that everyone has to die sometime, and the time and manner of our death is not of our own choosing. (This won’t work if the person has committed suicide, in which case you need to deal with far greater feelings of fear, confusion, and guilt.)
I once read a story that might help you answer the question “Why did it have to be …?”
Someone lost his mother, and he raved, “Why my mother? Why my mother? Why not someone else?”
His father, who was equally broken-hearted, replied: “Okay. Let’s say it shouldn’t have been your mother. Whose mother should it have been? Pick a friend – name one – whose mother should have died instead of yours.”
The child could give no answer, but the silence was the beginning of his acceptance of the fact of his mother’s death. Death has to happen. To everyone. The only thing you can do – for yourself, for your loved ones, and for the one who is no more, is to accept it, and move on.
4. Guilt – “I didn’t do enough for … when they were alive, and now I can’t ever do what I meant to do.” “I was mean, and I didn’t get a chance to say I’m sorry.” All of us suffer from guilt – it is part of the human condition, and the best we can hope for is to make our peace with it. Explain to your child that no matter how much love he had shown for the dead person, he would always reproach himself; he would always feel that there was more he could have done. Tell him this feeling is natural. Let him know that the departed person would hate for him to feel so burdened. He (the child) was much loved by the dead person, who would hate to see him so sad and feeling guilty about non-issues. Essentially, you’re telling your child: “Be happy for …’s sake.”
5. Responsibility – “… died because I did / did not do something.” Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe, but it isn’t. Children have a tremendously inflated sense of their own importance. They feel that the sun rises and sets by their wish. So it is natural that they understand every event as a natural result of something that they did or did not do. Death is an event too. And you need to help them realize that powerful as they are, they do not control death.
Maybe your child’s toy tripped up the grandparent, who fell and injured herself so seriously that she died. Your child will feel responsible, because it was her job to put her toys away, and she had been reminded to do this even on the fateful day, but had postponed doing it. And then – her grandmother tripped on the toy…
You could try explaining in many ways: “Gran had to go some way – it happened to be this way. It was just chance.” “So many people trip over toys (and other things), but they don’t always hurt themselves enough to die from it.” “The toys lay around the floor every day for weeks and months and years, without anybody being harmed by them.” “Gran never tripped over anything usually, even the toys in her way. Maybe she lost her balance only on that day. Maybe she was dizzy from being unwell or from some medication she was taking”…
Helping your child cope with the death of a loved one involves much more than just dealing with feelings of loss and grief. And you need to be ready to help him deal with it all. It won’t be easy. It will take time. It will seem like you are moving two steps back for every step you take forward. But it will happen; you and your child will cope – well.
I wish you healing and peace.
A loved one has died.
What can I say? What can anyone say? Nothing very much that will make a difference, really. In the first few days and weeks, you barely realize that the person is gone. This, despite being in the midst of grieving family and friends, and busy with all the rites and rituals attending the death. Everyone offers you their condolences – no one says anything to your child (especially if he is little).
People (including perhaps yourself) don’t say much to a child who is bereaved for a host of reasons:
1. They feel the child does not, or will not, understand – “He’s too young…”
2. They feel the child will not miss the departed person as much as the ‘adults’ will – “Children are so young, so resilient; they will ‘get over’ the grief quickly. Their very youth insulates them against feeling so deeply.”
3. They feel a child, by virtue of not being an adult, does not need condolences – “This is the ‘big, important people vs. silly little kids’ argument.”
4. They don’t know what to say to a child – They don’t know the child’s vocabulary level, her comfort with strangers talking to her, her relationship with the deceased, how deeply or lightly she is affected, what she thinks of the whole thing, whether she will accept their condolences or not, how she will react to what they say to her…”
All these reasons are bosh! They are just convenient rationalizations by adults, because we’re so thrilled – worse, we’re so self-righteous! – we’re following social norms ‘correctly’, that we couldn’t be bothered to think about what we are (or are not) doing.
So how can you help your child cope with the death of a loved one?
You’ll be happy to know there is no complicated process or procedure involved. There’s just one thing that you need to do – over and over and over again. Okay, make that two things.
Let me give you some instances of how these two things could be used.
If your child has lost his other parent, you are probably in emotionally dire straits yourself. You feel bereft of your partner, lost, rudderless, maybe even abandoned – whether you are a man or a woman doesn’t enter the equation at this point. A part of you may feel very strongly that now, you need to ‘be both parents’ to your child (yet another ‘weird’ commonly-held notion – one of only a few million! 🙂 ) As a result, you may keep grabbing your child in an emotional manner, squeezing him to yourself, perhaps in an attempt to show him affection as your late partner would have done, or perhaps showing your child that he is doubly loved even though there’s only you in the parent role from now on. Your child may shrug off these hysterical embraces – it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the parent who’s gone. Maybe it’s just that on top of everything else, this over-protective behavior of yours is simply too much for him to take.
1. Stop. Stop doing the first thing that comes into your head. Yes, you are bereaved too, but you’re supposed to be the adult here. And you want to know how you can ‘help’ your child cope, not give your child more to cope with, which is what you may well be doing (unknowingly, but still – )!
2. Think. All the times you’ve grabbed him in a bear hug in moments of extreme emotion, how has he reacted? Has he shied away? Or leaned into you? Or not let you go? That’s your answer! Doing as your child wants to do is the way you’ll help him cope with the death.
Maybe it is a grandparent who’s gone. And this grandparent baked your child’s favorite chocolate chip cookies every Sunday. It was ‘their’ special time together. And now, Granddad is no more. Instinctively, wanting to ‘make up’ for the gone-forever Granddad, wanting to ‘make sure your daughter doesn’t miss him’, you begin mixing the ingredients for the cookies, asking her if she will join you in a faux-cheery voice, trying to imitate late Granddad’s accent, voice and manner.
1. Stop. Your daughter may think you are infringing upon her relationship with her grandfather. She might prefer having him dead and missing him, to playing the pretend game of normalcy with you, while she inwardly cringing at making a mockery of a relationship that was (and might well continue to be) almost sacred for her!
2. Think. If that is her special ‘thing’ with Granddad, don’t take the special-ness’ away. Maybe she misses both the activity and the person with whom she shared it – and missing both make his death ‘real’ for her. Let her go through the loss – get yourself out of the way. Take your cue from her.
Your child may want to ‘talk about it’ all the time. And your instinct is to be quiet. Before you forbid him from talking about the dead person for fear he’ll turn morbid,
2. Think. Let your child know that any reaction he has, is okay. If he wants to talk non-stop about the person who has passed on, that may be his way of grieving. Let him grieve. Let him know it is okay for him to grieve the way he wants to.
You child may refuse to discuss the person’s dying. You don’t know what’s going through her head. She may be afraid that talking about death might ‘spread’ it, taking away yet another person from the family. Before you give in to your instinct to force her to talk about the person who has died (‘so that she should not keep her feelings bottled up but should give vent to them; she will feel relieved, she will begin to heal,” you feel…),
2. Think. There’s a good reason she’s not talking about the death or the dead person. At least, it’s a reason good enough for her. Try and find out what’s going through her mind before you jump in like a bull in a china shop. Not that you mean to, of course…
1. Stop your instinctive reaction.
2. Think about what your child wants, thinks, feels. Think about what impression your instinctive reaction might create in your child.
Now that you’ve stopped and you’ve thought, decide on a course of action, and follow it.
I know – it feels like you’ve decided to jump, and when both your feet are in the air, you’re wondering whether it’s a good time to be landing on the ground in the near future. You’re on shaky ground, always tentative, unsure, lost and confused.
This is good. Because it tells your child it’s okay to be unsure, lost and confused – about the dead person, about the ones who are still alive, and about everything else as well. You don’t have to say it. He will understand from your manner.
And you would have helped more than you’ll ever know.
Some parents have written to me asking for suggestions on how they could explain the concept of death to their children.
There are 2 aspects to explaining death to children (or to anyone else). One is to help them be less afraid of death. This in itself is a tall order. How many of us can claim to have come to terms with the fact that with each passing moment, we are closer to death? Have we even begun to examine our own attitude towards death, our own fear of it? The answer is probably “no”. And still we want to help our children overcome the fear of death? Parents are a strange breed indeed!
The other aspect of death that you might want to address with your child is how to deal with the death of a loved one.
In the first case, the child himself will be gone. In the second, a dear one is gone, and the child needs to deal with the loss, the grief, perhaps the guilt, and maybe even an increased fear of his own death.
Today I’ll tell you some ways in which I have explained death – not only to my child, but to other children as well. In the next post, I’ll give you ideas on how you could help a child deal with the loss of a loved one.
“Where did I come from?” This is one of the questions that most fascinates children. As they grow, they learn about puppies and kittens and calves, they learn about birds hatching eggs, they see seeds grow into plants and trees, and they ask, “Where did I come from?”
Depending on your beliefs and your style of parenting, you come up with some answer to the question. But as your child grows, she wants more detail. (“How did I get into Mom’s tummy?” – a question you might have been dreading! 🙂 More on answering this in a subsequent post.) Given that your child will repeat this question innumerable times over the years, and ask for different kinds of information each time she asks “Where did I come from?”, I hope you are giving / have given some thought to what you’ll say.
I won’t tell you what to say. There are innumerable books, websites, movies out there which will give you ideas. You also have your memory of your own childhood as a resource, as well as ideas, suggestions and the experience of friends and family. For sure you’ll come up with something.
What is important is that you believe in whatever you come up with, that you are comfortable with the point of view, the level of detail, the language and the explanation. That is the only way your child will accept your answer. No matter how far out or how contrary to accepted belief, as long as you believe in the ‘truth’ of your version, your explanation will work.
In case you’re want to remind me that I’ve gone off-track (you’re supposed to be explaining death to a child, not how she was born), rest assured. I’m still with the program. 🙂
Ever since she was little, one of my daughter’s favorite ‘stories’ has been the story of how she was born. Of course, now that she’s a happening, know-it-all teen, the ‘wonder’ has gone out of the story, though it probably still has some nostalgic value. 🙂
For each of the ideas below, I repeat: use them with caution, only after you have thought each one through and are convinced about the statement. Each ‘answer’ you provide might raise a host of further questions, and unless you’re sure of your beliefs, it would be better not to use the answer. Also, different answers will work at different times with different children. You know yourself and your child, so pick what you think will work, or use these as inspiration to come up with your own ideas. Do share in the comments – your ideas, experience, and feedback.
Ideas of how you could explain death to your child:
1. It’s like going to sleep: “When you are asleep, you don’t know what is happening around you. I might enter the room, or change your diaper, or pick you up, and you wouldn’t know it. Do you remember how you fell asleep in the car that day, after we’d gone to the zoo? When you woke up, you were in your bed. You don’t remember what happened in between, but many things happened. Death is a bit like that. Things go on, but the dead person is not a part of it.”
Then, extend the logic. “If you’re not part of it, you don’t miss it. So there is nothing to be afraid of.”
2. It’s like going away: “When you go to the park to play, you are not at home. You’ve gone away from home. Dying is like that – people who die go away. (We don’t know where they go.) When you are away from the house, it’s not necessary that you are sad or lonely or frightened. You may be enjoying yourself enormously with your friends. I keep calling you to get home and do your homework, but you’re having so much fun that you don’t want to come back; you want to keep playing outside. So if death is like going away, it doesn’t mean it has to hurt or be painful or sad or lonely. When you’ve gone away to the park, you could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting with your friends – anything could be happening. But that is true of life at home too! You could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting at home as well. It’s all happening in a different place – that’s all.”
3. You have died before, only you don’t remember – This is my favorite explanation! 🙂 “When you were a little baby inside Mom’s / my tummy, you only knew darkness. Everything around you was soft and wet, all the sounds that reached you were muted. Nobody ever touched you, you only felt vibrations – like when a heavy truck goes past and you feel its movement in your body. You were safe and comfortable. That was your life inside the tummy. But nature does not allow babies to live inside the mom’s tummy forever. So you had to come out. You came out into bright light, into a cold dry room, with strange voices talking loudly, plastic gloves touching you. I’m sure you must have hated it!
We (your parents) welcomed you with joy. ‘Our baby is born!’ we said, delighted. We couldn’t stop smiling. But for you, for the little baby, it was like a death. The place you were in, the way you lived earlier (inside the tummy) was your life. And that life ended – it changed. You went away to another world – that is, you came into this world. So the death you think of as the end of this life is not necessarily bad – the more you think about it, the more anxious you will get, but that anxiety will not change anything. Everyone has to die, but dying out of this life may mean being born in another place. And guess what? You actually celebrate the day you died inside the tummy – you celebrate it with cake and candles and gifts as your birthday! 🙂 🙂
4. What if nobody died? – This is a great way of getting children to see why death in the abstract is desirable. Ask your child this open-ended question, and keep asking questions to each of her responses. It will lead to the realization that it is important that living things should die. A hypothetical conversation:
You: What if nobody ever died?
Your child: Then people would live forever! Nobody would have to go away.
You: Where would these people live? We complain already of so much traffic on the roads, so many people without jobs, too many children trying to secure admission in too few ‘good’ schools, too many people dying of hunger, too many people without homes. If nobody ever died, where would all these people live? Where would they find enough food?
Your child: (Some answer.)
You: And what would these people do with their time?
Your child: They would play/watch movies/have fun/shop (whatever is your child’s “fun thing” at the moment).
You: For how long? You like playing, but can you imagine Granddad playing for hours in the park? When you go for a walk with him, you complain that he walks too slowly. What would you do if you lived to be that age and you lived forever? Even as a child, you come home tired after playing for a few hours. How would you like to just keep playing all through the day every single day? Believe it or not, you’ll be bored.
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”
Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)