Children are curious about the world. They explore and discover through their senses and when they are verbal they ask questions. “How?” and “Why?” are typical questions that are asked, sometimes several times in succession. If a child is seeking attention by asking questions, they can be redirected. However, when they want answers they will persist. Parents need to be prepared to answer these questions – both the easy and the difficult questions.
Parents must always be the source of truth.
A child must be able to trust that parents can give answers. This process will serve families well as children age and questions about serious matters present themselves. Better to learn information from you than from the playground or on the Internet! Keep in mind where your child is developmentally. For instance, you wouldn’t talk about the pleasures of sex with a two-year-old when asked: “where do babies come from”. You could say, “when two adults love each other and put their bodies together, a part from the dad and a part from the mom comes together and a baby starts growing in the mom’s womb.” Simple. Truthful. And often enough for a few years. An older child, 4 or 5 years can handle additional details included correct names for anatomical body parts. Developmentally, children under the age of 6 or 7 are very egocentric. Anything new is filtered through with the question, “can it happen to me, to you, or to our family”. When someone is very sick or dying young children’s first thoughts are relative to their safety, health, and well-being. This is a great time to reiterate that it is important to take care of our bodies by eating healthy food, exercising and getting enough sleep. It is also appropriate to build trust for doctors, who can help a person get well.
Explaining death to children
When elderly family members are nearing the end of life or die, it is good to use the words, “Grammy was very old and her body stopped working”. Mechanics are easy for young children to understand. “No, this will not happen to your parents for a very, very long time.” What about hospitals and funerals – should young children attend? The answer is, no, if you can avoid it. And, yes, for a very brief time if you cannot. Your family’s culture and traditions will dictate how you explain where the body goes after death. Please, do not say the person went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Who would want to go to sleep with that fear in mind?
Hospitals can be very noisy, unpredictable places. Witnessing an emergency or multiple hurt people can be disruptive to a child. This is one of the only circumstances I would recommend using technology with young children to FaceTime or Zoom in a relative in the hospital. Wakes and funerals are difficult because seeing multiple people mourning can be alarming. Witnessing some grief is fine and a part of life, however excessive grief is not so good.
How about when parents separate or get a divorce?
The best all-around scenario is when parents have an amicable, organized split and stay civil in the presence of young children. For young children, the message can be, “we will always be a family and love each other, but, we will be happier if mom/dad and I don’t live together anymore.” Children need to be reassured that they are not the cause of the separation. Quickly work out a consistent custodial plan and share the schedule with classroom teachers. What is more disorienting than a child being unsure who will pick them up each day and where they will sleep each night? I will share a personal story of a divorce done right: One of my family members separated from her spouse when her child was 2-years-old. She worked out the custodial schedule and stuck to it. Even though her ex-spouse was very frustrating, she never spoke poorly about him in front of her child. When her child was 4 or 5, she said, “I am the luckiest girl in the world because so many people love me!”
Families are all about love.
We are fortunate to live in New York City where we have all kinds of families and our children are learning about the inclusion and diversity of each. “Families are the compass that guides us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter.” ~ Brad Henry