Q: What is the best way to explain death to my five-year-old?
BBB: A child’s understanding of death is long in coming but begins very young. Truth be told, I’m not sure anyone ever wholly understands death; there are people who spend their entire lives trying to figure it out.
The lesson begins early on, even before the child talks. The parent sees a dead moth on the sill or snail on the path and says, “That moth is dead,” neither afraid nor shying away from using the word dead. In the Fall, Daddy points out that the leaves on the trees are dead, and they are falling off the trees. The blossoms are all done living and fell off the rose bush. As the child grows, he develops a construct in his head for the concept of “dead.”
Around the age of four (sometimes before and sometimes later), questions about death and other big topics will bubble to the surface. “What does dead mean?” And the more painful, “Are you [parent] going to die?” or “When are you going to die?” and even “I don’t want you [or me] to die.”
Up until this point, death is not a loaded topic for the child, as long as we don’t make it so. Now everything changes. This is where the story continues in simple words, delivered in a confident, matter-of-fact tone.
“Everything that is alive, dies. Everything in the whole world – trees, flowers, worms, dogs, flies, elephants – lives a whole life and much later, it dies. Everything that is alive has a life cycle. First it is born and then it grows up. It gets older and older, as it lives out its lifespan. And when it gets very, VERY, VERY old, its life gets ready to be over and it dies.”
A critical part of this story is letting the child know that you (or Daddy) are not going to die for a very, very, very, very, very, very long time. You will be his mommy when he goes to kindergarten and to first grade and when he goes to summer camp and when he’s a Boy Scout. And, “I will be your mommy when you are in second grade, and when you have your first sleepover and when you go to third and fourth grade, and when you go to sleepaway camp.”
You take the time to describe the most minute details of his life to come while you will still be his mommy. And you say, “And I will be your mommy when you fall in love and decide to get married, and I will go to your wedding. And when you have a baby, I will still be your mommy, but I will be your baby’s granny.”
You are communicating that you and he will be together, mother and child for a very long time to come.
Then there is the part about Heaven. While parents find the idea of Heaven a comfort, regardless of your religious beliefs, it is my recommendation that it not be introduced at the start of the lesson. It is difficult for young children who are so concrete in their thinking to grasp Heaven, especially as a place where someone the child loves goes without him. Why would he leave him? There is plenty of time for the Heaven piece as the child develops his capacity for abstract thinking.
There are many more aspects of the death story, all of which can be found in my book. This includes burial, souls, attending funerals and all the many death-related things your child will wonder about.
Q: When is the appropriate age to start the birds and bees talk?
BBB: There is no one definitive answer to this question, as the answer (like so many others) depends upon each child and each family. I can say with great certainty, however, that each parent wants to be the one to teach his child about the “birds and the bees.” It is definitely preferable to your child learning the facts of life on the play yard or from someone’s older brother or sister.
If the young child (ages two and a half to four) is exposed to someone who is pregnant, it is highly likely that she will ask at an age younger than what is typical how the baby got in Aunt Susie’s tummy. For others, four years old would not be surprising as this is the age when children ask all kinds of questions – about death, sex, God and other biggies.
But if the child gets to be six, seven or eight and she hasn’t asked, it is my suggestion that you start the conversation. “You know, you have never asked me where babies come from. If you want to know, I’m happy to talk to you about it any time.” That will likely get the ball rolling.
A client once approached me after my seminar, “The Birds and the Bees,” and shared with me that she had no intention of telling her nine-year-old daughter about sex. In reply to my question why not? she said, “I don’t want my child to have sex before she is married.” If this woman thinks not having this conversation will lead to abstention, she is parenting like an ostrich with her head in the ground. She is likely in for a big, unwelcome surprise.
Betsy Brown Braun, bestselling author of the award-winning book “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me” is a child development and behavior specialist, parenting expert and multiple birth parenting consultant. She consults with parents privately and runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers and other professionals. She is a frequent guest on radio and television – including the “Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and “The Rachael Ray Show” – and her parenting expertise has been featured in numerous print publications, websites and blogs. She and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have three grandchildren, so far. Visit: betsybrownbraun.com, Facebook.com/BetsyBBraun and Twitter @BetsyBBraun.