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Death be not…silly?

The other day I came home from a day of work to find our sometimes-sitter, Pete, on the verge of hysterical laughter while reading Cinderella to the girls. He explained what had happened: they were on the second to last page of the book, and he read: “…and when the prince saw that the slipper fit, he knew that this was the girl he’d fallen in love with at the ball.”

As he was about to turn the page, Clio provided her own ending, saying, with happy finality: “And then she finally died!”

(Needless to say, I cracked up when Pete told me this.)

I’d like to think that this was some kind of feminist commentary on the spiritual death that might await a woman who, with little to no real life experience or education, allows herself be “rescued” from her unhappy circumstances by the first guy who comes along, rather than forging an independent identity first.

But, no. Really, it’s just that Clio has no freaking idea what death is all about, but likes to talk about it a lot — as does Elsa.

We have, of course, tried to explain the concept of death to the girls. They know that when a person or animal dies, it means they’re never coming back; that you can’t see or touch or talk to them anymore. They also know — in theory — that it’s a serious and often very sad thing. But all of this is pretty difficult to understand in the abstract when you’re three years old.

And so, we get stuff like the Cinderella plot twist, or situations like when I was taking the girls to preschool yesterday and was treated to Clio singing a “song” — more like an extended, extemporaneous chant, in a jaunty major key — about her friendly bear (the girls both have imaginary friendly animals of various sorts — bears, dragons, dinosaurs, etc.), which went something like this:

“OH, MY FRIENDLY BEAR DIED IN A FEW WEEKS, AND IT’S VERY SAD! I MISS HIM VERY MUCH! BECAUSE HE DIED, AND I CAN’T PLAY WITH HIM ANYMORE. OH, MY FRIENDLY BEAR, HE DIED, AND THAT’S WHY HE CAN’T GO TO THE LIBRARY OR THE PLAYGROUND WITH ME, I MISS HIM VERY MUCH! BECAUSE HE DIED! SO I WON’T SEE HIM EVER AGAIN!” (And on and on. And on.)

Elsa was about to start in with her song about her imaginary dead animal pal, when I stopped to remind the girls that, hey, remember, death and dying are pretty sad. And think how sad it would be if one of their friends died, and never came back again? Maybe we should sing some songs about something else for a while.

Clio countered that her friendly bear was just pretend. And started singing again.

I’m not sure exactly how to proceed. On the one hand, it’s probably harmless enough for the girls to go around talking and singing merrily about death, as long as we periodically remind them that it’s not really a laughing matter. Forbidding it entirely, like it’s some taboo subject, doesn’t seem particularly healthy.

On the other hand…well, I don’t know. This is one of these areas of parenting where I feel entirely clueless. I mean, I always knew I’d have to talk with my children about death. But I never thought I’d have to deal with this. Do I just let it slide? Let them work through and try to grasp the subject (much like potty and body-related things) in their own, silly, three-year-old way? Answers in the form of epitaphs get special props.

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Photo: Joe Penniston

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