I try to be the kind of parent who is brutally honest with their children.
Want to know where babies come from? Sure, I’ll bore you with the details, why not? They won’t even care to listen if you make it sound like a biology lecture.
But certain concepts are almost impossible to explain to a young child. It’s easy to forget the incredible amount of knowledge you’ve accumulated over your life, that there are things that you take for granted that someone new to existence doesn’t understand in the slightest.
Once, upon arriving at a cottage owned by a family friend, the eldest found a photo of an older boy and instantly assumed it was a picture of himself, from the future. To be fair, he looked kind of similar, but the assumption was so immediate, so natural, that it stuck with me.
The eldest has been watching us capture frames of time since the day he was born, seen pictures of himself as a baby that he feels absolutely no connection to; why would he rule out the possibility of a photo from the future?
Time flowing forward, linearly, is a concept we all had to learn, and might not even be an accurate depiction of the way time actually works. Much of our perception is shaped by upbringing, and young children dwell in a reality far removed from the controlled chaos of the adult world, with fewer rules to make sense of the madness.
Explaining where babies come from is only difficult because of self-imposed prudishness; the origin of life isn’t a frightening concept to grasp, just a bit messy. Death, however, casts a permanent shadow on the psyche.
Recently, me and the eldest were taking a sunny stroll through the local cemetery, which is a pretty serene place to take a hyperactive child, the closest thing we have to a nearby nature trail. And the eldest is at an age where he’s asking a lot of simple questions with very complex answers.
“Who’s that man?” he asked, pointing to a stained-glass image of Jesus. “He’s, ummm … a character from a story. Called the Bible,” I answered, rather pleased with my evasion.
As we passed a particularly impressive mausoleum, all crooked and Tim Burtony, the eldest asked me, “Who lives there?”
“Skeletons,” I replied, casually. This prompted an explanation of what the cemetery actually is – a decorative place for dead people, a conversation that I was deeply unprepared for. And, inevitably, the most difficult question arose: “Why do some people die and some people don’t?”
“Everybody dies,” I answered, without thinking.
That’s a burdensome piece of knowledge. That is knowledge which regularly fills me with intense existential angst and despair, a fact of life which I think most people generally avoid thinking about for sanity’s sake.
In the face of that terrible knowledge, it’s not surprising that people choose to believe stories that promise some kind of eternal family gathering in the clouds. Hell, I wish I could believe that.
The eldest wasn’t ready to hear the dreadful truth about life, and I dropped it on him as casually as I would discuss the weather. After my foolish revelation, he fell silent, reluctantly agreeing to get some ice cream, my desperate attempt at distraction.
Hoping he’d just kind of forget about the fact that he and everyone he loves are, one day, going to disappear into the eternal abyss, I pointed out a raccoon prowling nearby. He stared at it morosely and asked, “Is it going to die?”
I spent the day quietly panicking, wondering how to remove the burden of knowledge without outright lying to him. It was a bit confusing, because I’d actually heard him discuss death before, with his classmates. And after watching a Disney movie, he once asked me, “Do bad guys always die?” which leads into a critique I have of the simplistic, black and white morality of children’s stories, but that’s for another article.
Point is, I didn’t want to lie to him, but I obviously didn’t want to upset him. And upon receiving ice cream, he perked up, seemingly having forgotten that this sugary treat was naught but a flickering pleasure soon to be swallowed up by the unknowable darkness.
Until, later that night, he remembered. And cried. Of course, my wife demanded an explanation for why I’d casually informed our child that he was doomed to one day dissolve into particles.
There was no other alternative – I lied. “You’re not going to die,” I said. “Not ever.” In fact, I promised it, which felt particularly shitty, but I desperately didn’t want to induce existential angst in a four-year-old. He already has nightmares.
He seemed suspicious, but he accepted it. Now, I’m not sure what he thinks about death. But I’d rather he didn’t think of it at all. To truly understand that one day, without warning, one’s self is going to just fade away, as though it never existed in the first place, is truly maddening for most.
People develop all sorts of coping mechanisms, fictions and fables, to make peace with the fact that one day our stories will end. But I suspect that even the deathly religious are just as terrified of the void as everybody else. Maybe more so.
But it’s not a topic for a child to understand. Not yet. And I’m hoping he doesn’t think about it again for a long time, a difficult conversation delayed until it is truly necessary, hopefully, much further down the line.
Or at least, until he watches The Lion King.