Not talking about death …

I’ve learned one thing more acutely than any other as a parent: now is the only time you have. Now is your only chance to have an impact on them.

That might sound like trite, wishy-washy silliness, but a couple of months ago it became rather abruptly real for me.

I have been reading Dale McGowan’s thoughts on humanist parenting since before either of my children were born. His blog, his books, the occasional video or personal email. I’ve learned that it’s important not to insulate kids from different ideas. That you need to be honest and open, and try not to pressure them into adopting your own favorite viewpoint.

And I’ve read that you can start as early as you like. But you know … no hurry, right? I mean, at first they don’t even understand speech. And then, well, they get the words but not all of the abstract ideas. And after that …

When Great Grandma died, it clearly lit something in them. A worry, a curiosity … I don’t know. Some existential human-ness that had so far been dormant. Anyway, at four and six years old, they started talking about it, asking about it.

I was unprepared, and I didn’t respond helpfully.

“Daddy, are you going to die?”

When are you going to die?”

“When am I going to die?”

“I don’t want to die.”

I don’t want you to die either. Or me. Please stop making me think about this.

Yes, of course. My own fears kept me from facing their worries directly, from recognizing them, from engaging them honestly and frankly. What can I say? Deep down I’m still a 4-year-old boy when it comes to facing death, or any of life’s other big questions. A 4-year-old boy with a somewhat larger vocabulary to hide behind.

No problem. I still had time to work out how to approach this better. Let me think about it for a while.

A few months later, we visited the church of some pleasant lads we’d been talking to – Mormon missionaries. This is good, right? Expose the kids to different ideas. Let them know about the great variety around them, and show them how much we trust them to make their own choices.

Deena and I sat through the service with the kids, and then visited a Bible study thing afterwards while the kids went to Sunday school. Afterwards, Kaia had this little craft she had done – a paper drawing of a person, with a transparent overlay, illustrating a person with a soul. She started talking about what happens when a person dies. Their strength goes out of them and goes … well, somewhere.

She was rather vague on the details, but clearly the idea of a life after death had been conveyed. It had been told her as simple truth, by someone who clearly believed it. And so she took it on as simple truth, as she would any other claim from a trusted adult. I really can’t fault the Sunday school teacher, or the Mormon church, for this. That’s their belief, after all.

It didn’t alarm me that she had heard this idea, or repeated it. What alarmed me was the realization that Deena and I hadn’t forearmed her with the knowledge that there are other ideas out there too – that this isn’t necessarily the way it is.

Her grandparents (who are all quite aware of our own beliefs about such things) were rather surprised to be told about souls and heaven by their (so far as they thought) thoroughly heathen granddaughter.

Lesson learned. Since then, we’ve been watching for questions and offering open answers – “That is what some people believe; others believe X or Y.” “Here are some ideas – have some fun with them.”

I’m also keeping an eye out for other hot-button topics. She’s only six, but at the current rate of time passage, by the end of the year she’ll be heading off to college without any fatherly wisdom on relationships, sex, finances, or how to strike the perfect work/Star Trek balance in life.

Anyway, stay tuned for further afterlife conversations. Our new openness in answering questions about death is already paying off.

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2 Responses to “Not talking about death …”

  1. ubi dubium Says:

    One thing we did with our kids that helped with this kind of question was including mythology in the bedtime stories we read to them. Especially Greek and Norse, and later including some bible stories in too. That helps with perspective, so you can talk about beliefs in context of lots of other beliefs they are already familiar with.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Awesome idea! I’m always struggling to come up with bedtime stories. They are voracious, which is wonderful, but sometimes taxing.

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