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How do I explain death to a 5 yr old?

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My daughter (turning 5 in May) has been staying up unusually late the past few nights. Tonight, after responding to my daughters calls, my wife came downstairs with tears in her eyes. Apparently my daughter had told her that she wants to be put between us with her bunny and other stuffed animals & her blanket when she dies. My wife told me she tried to explain to her that she wouldn't have to worry about that for a long long time, probably not till she was 85. My daughter is really worrying about death & dying.

I want to have a discussion with my daughter to try & take her mind off of dying and focusing on enjoying her life, but I know her personality (she's just like me) and she will worry about this. Problem is, I don't have any experience talking to a 5 yr old about death. I was raised Greek Orthodox & was given the standard answer about going to heaven & being together again up there looking down on the world.

Does anyone here have any advice? I'm particularly interested in hearing from other parents who have gone through this but I am open to rational suggestions from non-parents as well.

I've thought about explaining how no one really knows what happens when you die, so that is just something we'll all have to see when we get there. I thought about outlining hypotheses like reincarnation, heaven or just nothing. However I don't want to set the stage for her to think they're true. I see now why so many people turn to religion after having children. It's pretty easy to abdicate the responsibility of explaining the tough questions & turn to using the prepared doctrine of religion.

I would really appreciate some advice in this area.

Thanks!

Demetrius

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I think it would be worth mentioning a couple of Objectivists who are professional psychologists who you could e-mail.

Dr. Kenner has a website here. Likewise, Dr. Hurd has a site here. I do not know if they have experience in child psychology. After occasionally reading their material across a decade, I tend to trust them.

I've only studied about a semester of psychology in college, and I've taken several courses with Objectivist intellectuals including Dr. Kenner. Still, I can only offer generalities as far as what I would do. Also, I am _not_ a parent. I think your second-guessing yourself about not wanting to offer traditional and seemingly safe responses is well-founded. It won't benefit your child to be deceitful about the matter.

I'm certainly not expecting you to elaborate your situation here. My first question is: What gave rise to your child's interest in the subject? I would try to backtrack and find out more about the circumstances. Did this come from watching a TV show? ...from a playmate? ..overhearing something a relative said? I bring these questions up because you want to better establish the context of your child's fear. I'm not saying that you shouldn't discuss death, but death is a state of non-existence, so I would think that the conversation has to shift in order for you to be more pro-active.

I think you should speak to your daughter in terms of (1) concretizing her fears (though not in a labor-intensive way of course) and (2) establishing the safety of her living conditions. For example, if she just heard about the concept of death in a vague way and her fear is oriented to just having the related curiosity about what that entails, then I would redirect her attention to what she _does_ have and what she _can_ expect in the near future i.e. a good and happy life.

One way in which religion goes horribly awry is in attempting to undercut causality. If you were to answer her fears with facts e.g. you are providing shelter, clean and nutritious food, means for reasonably safe exercise, medical care if needed, etc., then she could better understand that she has less to fear.

I have to think about this more.... I guess I can summarize by saying that you would do well to encourage her to focus on the knowable. Oh also, with experience comes confidence. If you reinforce the idea that you are supervising her, then she will be encouraged to focus on what she is able to do and what she wants to do. In turn, your indicating to her that she can continually refer to you for further advice establishes a place for greater physical and psychological freedom.

I have to tell you now that this may be one of the more difficult issues I've ever tried to respond to so that signals to me that you would do well to get professional advice. In addition, professionals might suggest a particular direction and pacing for your conversations, and those are tactical issues which I don't feel confident enough to be certain of.

Edited by tps_fan
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As a non-psychologist, but a parent, I'd agree that the first thing to figure out is the root and the exact nature of her fear. Often, when a child is worried about something, and one investigates further, one finds that it is different from an adult version, is much more "faulty reason" based, and can be tackled at that level.

Having said that, I'm not sure if this is a wider issue that you need to tackle at some broader level. You do mention that she worries a lot. That's something only you and your wife or a professional can really judge.

Another Objectivist psychologist is Dr. Adams.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've had a great conversation via private messages regarding this topic with Smathy.

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I liked his advice so much that I thought I'd post it. However, the format of our messages contained a lot of quotations & commentary related to specific paragraphs that I thought it would be useful to reformat it into a conversation format. We both agree that the conversation sounds a bit contrived, but that the messages are conveyed acurately. Both of us have reviewed the contents and approved - with the disclaimer that this is a conversation constructed from messages sent back and forth (you also may notice lines cut and pasted from my original post in there). The characters below are: D - Me and S: Smathy. If there are other parents out there looking for some advice on speaking to their children about death, I hope this will help.

D: Smathy, I need some advice. My daughter, turning 5 in May, has been staying up unusually late the past few nights. Tonight, after responding to my daughters calls, my wife came downstairs with tears in her eyes. Apparently my daughter had told her that she wants to be put between us with her bunny and other stuffed animals & her blanket when she dies

S: “Aww, that's gorgeous, what a beautiful thought from someone so young."

D: Yeah, but my wife was caught a bit off guard by it all. She told me she tried to explain to my daughter that she wouldn't have to worry about that for a long, long time, probably not till she was 85.

S: That was a very unhelpful response for your daughter. Imagine the same situation between you and your wife, if you expressed concern about something serious to you, which you didn't really understand, and your wife responded by trying to tell you that you had nothing to worry about, that the problem was insignificant at this time, etc. You would probably close off and not bother involving your wife in any of your thoughts on the matter for some time.

D: hmm.. I want to have a discussion with my daughter to try & take her mind off of dying and focusing on enjoying her life, just not sure what to say.

S: imagine if someone did that to you. Imagine if right now instead of discussing this issue with you - I began trying to take your mind of it. "Hey, enough about your daughter, tell me about the other areas of your life, what sort of positive things do you see elsewhere in your life." You'd be: "What the hell are you talking about?!?" And rightly so. Your daughter will respond the same way, only it will have a far greater impact on her because she really values your opinion and input

D: You’re right, geez I feel pretty bad about this. What now? I know her personality and she will worry about this.

S: Good, because you know what - there's nothing more concerning for any living thing than death. It's perfectly natural for a conceptual being to ponder its own mortality. For your daughter, at her age (like mine) it's extraordinarily advanced. If you're not overwhelmingly impressed with your daughter's amazing conceptualization, and her advanced thoughts, then you need to ask yourself why. What is it about your daughter pondering death that bothers you and why?

D: This is exactly what I told my wife, my daughter is brilliant. Seriously though, I think what bothers us most is the thought of her dying. It brings tears to both our eyes.

S: Don't be afraid to tell your daughter that too - "Y'know I get really upset when you talk about dying because I'd be very sad if you were to die." Your daughter will probably show how strong she is by comforting you

D: Problem is, I don't have any experience talking to a 5 yr old about death in a secular context. I was brought up in a Christian household with the standard going to heaven answer.

S: Hey, I was raised in a secular family and no one ever presented me with the "How to talk to your five year old about death." manual. One of the reasons for that is that this really is no big deal. Kids have a natural curiosity about everything; you must know that. As they happen on a new subject they study it, think about it, ponder it. If they're always encouraged to think then they will often advance to topics which are beyond their ability to understand. You just do what you can, in the context of their world.

D: What about with your own daughter, has this ever come up?

S: Actually, yes. When my daughter was three, we went to see Charlotte's Web with both kids. So, in the end Charlotte, the spider, dies. Well, my daughters eyes filled with tears (I was pretty teary too) and she began asking questions. "Did Charlotte really die?" "Yes sweetie." "That's really sad." "Yes, it's very sad when someone you care about dies." "Are you going to die Daddy?" "Yes, one day." "Will I be very sad?" (laughing a bit) "I hope so!" "I will be very sad I think. .... Will I die?" "Yes sweetie, we all die." (very overwhelmed with tears) "I don't want to die." "No sweetie, nor do I." (confused and still crying) "I really don't want to die." "No, I really don't want to die either." (giving me a huge hug) "I hope we never die." "Wouldn't that be great if we never died." (happier) "Yes, and if we lived forever." "Let's see what we can do about that will we." (resolute) "Yes, good idea Dad."

And that was the end of that. From time to time the subject comes up, talking about us dying, or her dying, or our two dogs which died when she was one, or Granny or Granddad - heh, that was funny. "Will Granny and Granddad die first?" "Yes sweetie, probably." "Because they're old?" "Yep." "Thought so."

D: What about after death? I've thought about explaining how no one really knows what happens when you die, so that is just something we'll all have to see when we get there. I thought about outlining hypotheses like reincarnation, heaven or just nothing.

S: You shouldn’t think about spinning complete lies to your child hoping to avoid the question. You'll only succeed in undermining her trust. My daughter has asked about heaven and I always answer with truth, that some people believe in heaven, but that there's no such place and when you die you die. She's asked why we have to die and I've explained about getting old and things running out sort of like a doll that breaks over time and eventually can't be fixed.

The important things to remember are:

1. Never shy away from an opportunity to engage your child in a thoughtful examination of a topic.

2. Always phrase things in (accurate) language your child will understand, or give examples involving dolls

3. Sometimes (especially with these sorts of subjects) your child just wants you to hear them out, not offer a solution.

4. The tone of what you say is as important as the content of what you say.

5. The quickest way to grow a fear in a child is to be afraid to talk about a subject, refuse to talk about a subject, or attempt to change the subject to something else. It is those actions by the parent, which instill the fear in the child - they feed of your reaction.

6. Look for the message behind the words.

D: You’re right; you know I've always been impressed with how rational kids can be. Sounds like she just needs to deal with this the same way a rational adult would, knowing she has some say and control over what happens even after she dies. She was very specific that she be buried between us and her little brother could be on the other side of one of us. Sibling rivalry to the end.

S: Oh that's classic! Think about the message behind the words. Here it is: There's this thing I've heard of called death, which I don't really understand. I'm quite concerned about it. When it happens I want all the things that make me feel happy around me, and I want to be right next to mum and dad, NO, actually I want to be BETWEEN mum and dad. Yeah, nothing is a problem when I'm between mum and dad. Yeah, that's a good idea, I'm sure that'll work, I'll just tell mum - she always tells me when I've had a good idea... "Hey mum, I want to be put between you and dad with my bunny and other stuffed animals, and my blanket when I die."

I would have immediately engaged her on the topic of her burial and asked which dolls she was going to have with her. Whether she was going to have her blanket folded, or wrapped around her. What clothes she wanted to be dressed in. Instead, think of the response that she received.

D: You’re right Smathy. I need to engage my daughter on this topic. I’ll let you know how it turned out.

S: If you're interested, a great book which I've read along the way - and which has been invaluable in my parenting - is "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk". If you get it you'll see much of what I've said here reflected in the pages, plus a heap more.

Three days later…

S: Hey Demetrius. So what happened with your daughter?

D: Well, it’s an interesting story. I engaged her at the dinner table the other night. I told her that it seemed she still had questions about dying and that maybe mommy and daddy didn’t do a good job answering them. I told her that it made us very sad to think about her dying but that I would try my best to answer her questions if she wanted to ask more. I think she really opened up & we had a pretty good conversation. At one point where I did have tears in my eyes, she didn’t get upset, just kind of took it in and let me hug and kiss her. She told me about wanting to be buried between her mother and asked how other people would know how she wanted to be buried. She was real concerned about this. I told her that big people wrote wills and that a will told other people how to bury you and what to do with all your stuff.

“All my stuff?” She asked.

“Yes” I said, “any stuff you want”.

I asked her if she wanted to write a will and that she could tell me what she wanted & I would write it up for her and she could sign it and put it with Mommy & Daddys wills. She liked that idea. So after dinner she sat on my lap at the computer and this is what I typed up based on her wishes:

“I wish to be buried with between my mommy & daddy holding my pink bunny and straw cup in both arms. I direct that all my other stuffed animals including sheep & soft bunny, my soft Jasmine doll be placed around me in a circle. I direct that I should be wrapped in my soft pink & purple princess blanket.

I direct that my Barbie dolls and Barbie videos be put around me with my stuffed animals.”

I printed it out and had her print her name at the bottom. She said she wanted to draw pictures on it too but got distracted by things she had forgotten so she had my wife add to the will in marker: “and my Polly pockets and my markers and my gum & I want to wear my jewelry and my Aurora magnets and everything I own.”

I swear she has been falling asleep better at night since we wrote that up. She hasn’t brought up death again since then.

S: Sounds like a great outcome! Thank you for letting me know how it went.

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I would like to second Smathy's book recommendation How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elain Mazlish. Other books by same authors are How to Talk so Kids Can Learn and Liberated Parents, Liberated Children - Your guide to a Happier Family. All are excellent.

I also recommend Teacher and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott. (Faber and Mazlish were students of Dr. Ginott).

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I was just talking to a friend about this today. I hadn't known about the thread when it first came up, so I thought it was quite a coincidence.

Neither my friend nor me have children. We are both atheists who value honesty. When I was going through this my mother told me that she didn't know what happened after death, but was sure that there was something and it wasn't bad. I think that was a lie. I don't know if she has ruled out the idea of an afterlife, but I am fairly certain that she thinks there is probably no afterlife.

When I was thinking about how I might deal with the question, I didn't know how to handle it. I thought that the way my mother handled it was alright, because it seemed to assuage my curiosity and didn't get me thinking that I had to avoid meat on Fridays or something just as ridiculous. However, I still didn't feel comfortable with lying.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread. It will be very helpful to me when I decide to have children.

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This is a great story!

Your daughter is smarter than I was at her age, I think. When I was 5 and my father got sick (brain cancer), my mother tried to explain over and over again what was going to happen. But when he finally died, just after I turned 6, it was a complete shock to me. To this day, I have all sorts of memories from that time. I can visualize the moment my mom told me the bad news like a movie in my head, clear as day. But I don't have a single memory of my mom trying to explain death to me. I believe her when she tells me she tried hard to get me and my brother to understand. I think it was just too complex for us. I couldn't grasp the idea of my father not being around anymore.

--Dan Edge

Edited by dan_edge
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My daughter is really worrying about death & dying...I want to have a discussion with my daughter to try & take her mind off of dying and focusing on enjoying her life, but I know her personality (she's just like me) and she will worry about this. Problem is, I don't have any experience talking to a 5 yr old about death

Thank you for this sincere post. I am not a parent but I hope to be someday, I think I would have said something like "I don't want you to die either honey, but right now it seems like everyone will someday. But maybe one day people won't have to get sick and die anymore, and maybe that will happen before you die. Maybe you could help do something one day so that people wont have to die, by being a doctor and studying science" Do you think she would have responded well to something like that? Maybe she would have decided, as many young children decide to be an astronaught or a doctor, to try to do something like that with her life.

I have a close friend who is a hopsice nurse, she was telling me of a relatives experience with their young child. The child had a pet fish which died. The child was very upset and crying. They disposed of the dead fish and tried to console their child. During their cosoling one of the parents snuck out to the pet store and bought another fish that looked like the one that died. They placed it into the childs fish bowl while the other parents said "Look! Look! Charlie woke up and is all better now" The child, dumbfounded, stared in a bewildered state of paused crying confusion, then kind of said 'oh ok' I think that is a perfect example of what NOT EVER to do. Poor kid will probably be pyschologically damaged by this. Such is our cultures mad attemtps to deal with the cessation of existence, trick and fool ourselves and make up crazy stories.

My best friends nephew, who is 6 or 7, has a pretty rational understanding of death. My friend was playing "Shadow of the Colousses" which is a visually stunning game featuring huge giants that your charachter climbs on and attacks. While playing, my friends nephew came into the room. The conversation went as follows

Anthony (nephew) : Hi uncle Warren, what are you doing?

Warren (friend): Oh I am playing a game anthony, look at it is pretty neat.

Anthony (looking) : oh wow

(the game charachter proceeds to climb on the giant and starts stabbing him, the giant wails and flinches in pain)

Anthony: Why are you doing that to him uncle Warren thats mean!?

Warren: Oh uh I dont know Anthony he's a bad person

Anthony: What did he do?

(the game story is basically that your charachters lover dies and the gods say if you slay these 8 giants they will bring her back)

Warren: oh um he hurt people

(giant falls, withers, screams, and dies)

Anthony(concerned): Uncle Warren did you kill him! is he dead?!

(giant clearly dead) Warren: oh um no anthony, im sure he's fine he'll get back up

Anthony (telling warren the bad news) : No uncle Warren, when you are dead you don't come back. Why did you kill him?

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I remember that I wasn't really *aware* of death until I was 11 or so and I watched The Seventh Sign with my parents and a next-door neighbor. I remember what happened but not precisely what age I was. My experience was probably not too typical, though, because I was a phenomenally sheltered and naive kid. It's not that I was sheltered so much by my mom as by my complete lack of any concern with other people.

Anyway, before I start reminiscing and wander completely off-topic, I was hit pretty hard by the movie and the sudden realization that everything was going to *end* one day. Not some far off future day that I couldn't conceive of, but tomorrow. I suppose abstractly that my response was pretty pathetic, but there you go. I'll always remember what my mom finally told me, largely out of frustration.

"Jenni, if the world did end tomorrow, could you do anything about it?"

"Well, no."

"Then why worry about it?"

And that, of course, is the proper answer. I think when confronting the idea of death with your children, the most important and useful thing to do is to help them understand what is and isn't open to action and how things that you can't do anthing about you just dismiss.

And for goodness' sake don't try to outline some ridiculous subject like "well maybe if you become a scientist you'll never have to die", you will give the child a complex.

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And for goodness' sake don't try to outline some ridiculous subject like "well maybe if you become a scientist you'll never have to die", you will give the child a complex.

Are you serious? Shocking words, I think, to be coming from an objectivist. If the world was going to end tomorrow I damn well would try to do something about it because I value my life and my existence and the world. So hoping and trying to do something about something you would prefer to avoid will cause a complex, but burying your head in the sand and pretending like the cessation of existence wont? yeah, just take a quick look at all the crazy religious ideas which have arose in a pathetic attempt to make us feel better about our mortality.

Aging is a physiological process and as such science and medicine will certainly make tremendous strides in defeating it, telling a child no matter how hard they try the could never accomplish something as significant as that is a terrible thing to say. The same could be said of any great innovation or human accomplishment "no man will ever fly" "no man will ever go to the moon" "no man will ever make an artificial heart" "no man will ever conquer diabetes" "no man will ever cure cancer" Just be quiet, bow down, apologize for you existence, and don't try to do anything difficult...

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sounds like this has been a useful thread. Thanks for all the good feedback too. My daughter is so curious about this topic. Kids can be very rational thinkers and their questions can catch you off-gaurd because they're to the point and ask about things that maybe you haven't thought about in years.

My wife went to a wake (without the kids) for a friends mother when they were visiting family last week. My daughter found out where she had been and asked if she could go next time someone we knew died. We told her that we hoped no one we knew would die any time soon, but that if she really wanted to go she could. She wants to see people before they get buried now. If we're not careful, she'll become the next Edgar Allen Poe. :)

Last night I actually did use the doctor comment, but in the following context:

my daughter (E): Daddy, I don't want to die

Me (D): I know sweetie, but that's what happens to people. We get old and then die. I don't want to die either. You know what though? There are doctors and scientist working on ways to make people live longer. When you're older, most people will probably live to be more than 100 years old. Probably even longer!

E: We can live forever?

D: Not forever, but longer. If you want to help people live longer, maybe you can become a doctor.

E: And I can give people medicine and they'll live longer?

D: Sort of honey, doctors help make people better if they're sick so they can live longer.

These conversations always seem to take place at bed time. On one hand, it's a serious topic to address, on the other it's a great stall tactic on her part! :D

Demetrius

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Last night I actually did use the doctor comment, but in the following context:

my daughter (E): Daddy, I don't want to die

Me (D): I know sweetie, but that's what happens to people. We get old and then die. I don't want to die either. You know what though? There are doctors and scientist working on ways to make people live longer. When you're older, most people will probably live to be more than 100 years old. Probably even longer!

E: We can live forever?

D: Not forever, but longer. If you want to help people live longer, maybe you can become a doctor.

E: And I can give people medicine and they'll live longer?

D: Sort of honey, doctors help make people better if they're sick so they can live longer.

These conversations always seem to take place at bed time. On one hand, it's a serious topic to address, on the other it's a great stall tactic on her part! :D

Demetrius

That is wonderful Demetrius, thanks for sharing that. I am glad you shared that idea of maybe doing something about it to her, and she was receptive to it. I, for one, hold my life as my highest value and don't see any reason why we shouldnt do whatever we can to defeat (if possible) aging and death from disease.

Matus

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My five year old became somewhat interested in the topic after friends and relatives began talking to her about spending time in heaven with angels and God after they die. On the death aspect, I told her that it was probably a lot like going to sleep, was much like before she was born. I don't think that part is very real to her because she hasn't actually experienced the death of anyone significant to her. I also told her that the most important thing was to concentrate on learning things and doing the things she wanted to do in her life.

On the angels and God aspect of the story, I reminded her of the many different fairy tales, and she knows some of the stories of Egyptian gods, and Greek gods and goddesses (her name is Athena after all). Then I said simply, that long ago people believed in witches, and magic, and gods that looked like Cats, and that many people grew up and stopped believing in fairy tales because they weren't true. But a lot of people still believe in this particular fairy tale, especially in America, while people in other countries believe in different fairy tales. But our family is all grown up, and we tell the truth, instead of still believing in fairy tales.

Overall, she seems to have found the discussion satisfactory, and seems happy with the knowledge that she's more "grown up" or smarter than most people about fairy tale stories. I did suggest she not argue with the other kids about this, however, because they might get upset.

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