Thursday, April 21, 2005

Conversation with a Four-year-old

Today as I was contemplating one of life's big decisions, what shirt to wear today, Son approached.

Son: When I get older, will you die? And will Daddy die?
Me: Yes. But that won't happen for a long time.
Son: But I don't want to die.
Me: You're young. It won't happen for a long, long time.
Son: But Batman won't die.
Me: No. He's a superhero.
Son: I want you to be a superhero so you won't die.
Me: Okay. I'll be Wonder Woman.
Son: No, Hawk Girl.
Me: Okay, I'll be Hawk Girl and you'll be Batman and Dad will be Superman.
Son: Then you won't die.
Me: Right.
Son: Because Dad's father died.
Me: Yes.
Son: How did he die?

And so on. On the way to school we ended up having a long conversation on the evils of smoking. That seemed easier than trying to explain death and consciousness and whatnot to a four-year-old. Isn't four a bit young to be experiencing existential angst? Middlebrow says that's what results from living with two overly self-reflective people. Great. I somehow feel responsible. In Disney movies, when someone dies (it's inevitable, it happens in every movie) I always say, "Oh, he went on vacation" or "she's taking a nap". But we've always told Son what happened to Middlebrow's father. Was that a mistake?
I knew motherhood would be riddled with these moments you can't prepare for, but I didn't think I'd be discussing death with him at age four.
I feel simultaneously young and old, either way, unprepared.


Tim said...

Boy can I relate! I have had numerous conversations like this with my son over the years. He always seems to throw me for a loop when he asks what is actually a very intelligent, relevant and logical question.

Most of the time, children at this age fear death because it means to them that they will be separated from their family, not because they will no longer exist (like the way many adults fear it). To most "normal" children, the family is everything. It is still where they get their sense of self and where they turn to metabolize painful emotions. So the thought of being separated is almost unbearable. I think the best way to handle it is just what you did...reassure them that they will be okay and that their family will be with them. I used to feel guilty telling my kids things like that - in case something horrible did happen and then they would wonder why I was wrong, or worse, thought I lied. But, I realized that telling a child that "most likely, you won't die" is just too difficult for them.
A movie that demonstrates this powerful desire to be connected to the family is Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." I remember watching that movie and sharing childhood feelings like those the main character was experiencing - so intense and overwhelming at times.

Just wait for the questions about sex. Oh yes, they come much earlier than we expect. My stance on dealing with all these difficult questions is to give them an honest answer that is just enough to satisfy them and which is age-appropriate for their level of cognitive ability to understand.

Like when my 5 year old asked me how babies are made, I said "A mother has a seed in her body and a father has fertilizer to make the seed become a baby and grow." That was enough at the time. A couple years later the logical next question arose which is "how does the fertilizer get on the seed?" Oh boy.

Oh, and, I think most child psychologists (as well as experienced parents) would agree with your decision to be honest with your son about his grandfather’s passing. No worries.

theorris said...

I remember being interested in my Grandpa's absence when I was older than that (I don't remember anything from when I was four save one thing.) So I assume I probably had questions then too. It is the absence that made him fascinating to me; my other grandparents were also absent because of distant, but at least I had the idea that they were around; not is dead or in some other world or whatever I was constructing death as. It did scare me to think that if my Dad's dad could be dead, he could also be dead too, and that was a hard one to wrap the mind around. In any case I think most kids try to construct a hierarchy of family and it shapes a sense of identity etc.

Now to broaden this out a bit: such constructions seem to relate to relgion/myth-making storytelling, don't you think? Superheros of today are basically the gods of yesterday, aren't they? Why are kids so apt to construct superheros? Are we all apt to do that?

Dr. Write said...

Yes, I think in Son's ordering of the world, superheroes are on top. He's even made up his own hero, Garbageman, who carries a light saber. In his mind, I think, superheroes like Batman have always existed and they somehow escape danger and harm (like bullets), so they don't die. But, also in his ordering, if we choose to be superheroes, we too can survive. I like this. No suffering, no sin and redemption. We just decide to be superheroes, and wala! we don't die. Works for me!