My preschooler is in that adorable, filterless 3 year old stage where he asks every question that pops into his hardworking little brain. His questions are innocent, completely free of judgement and uncomplicated by the intricacies of political correctness, what is appropriate and what others might think. They can also be unexpectedly, mindblowingly wise.
A few days ago we unintentionally fell down the rabbit hole of discussing death, dying, burial and the afterlife when we drove past a cemetery. We drive by it all the time, but this particular day, Owen decided to ask a question that in his mind was probably quite simple. Surprise! It really wasn’t simple at all.
What are those stones out there?
It was one of those moments I knew that I should give him the straight answer in as few words as possible. My head was swimming with the right words to say. He had no idea that I wanted to tell him about death and religion and my personal philosophy on life after death and souls vs. bodies… all he asked about were those stones. Of course we will have these conversations some day, but right now he is only 3.
And he was only asking about the stones.
Still, I feel compelled to give him the “truth” (well, my version of the truth at least), and perhaps a glimmer of the larger conversation, for when he is ready to talk about the story behind the stones.
I told him the stones were called gravestones. That they marked a place where a person’s body was put in the ground after they died. And then I waited. I waited for the follow-up questions.
Why are they under there? Under the ground?
Can they breathe under there?
Just Mommies and Daddies, right? Not kids?
What about dogs?
How did they GET there?
Can I see them put someone down there?
Why do some people go under the ground and other people don’t?
I answered each one matter-of-factly. You know, after pausing for a moment to let my heart break into a million pieces when he asked if there were kids buried there as well.
And then, as with so many other things at 3 years old, we turned the corner and the conversation was over. We moved on to talking about what kind of yogurt he wanted to pick out at the grocery store.
Phew. I think I avoided totally screwing up our first conversation about death.
But I know it’s not the last. I also know that the conversation about death almost always boils down to a conversation about religion. My own philosophy about religion is that I’m not going to choose it for my kid. He will have to make his own decision. My plan, if you can call it that, since in some ways it is just a very theoretical game of hot potato, is to educate him about what lots of different people believe, and leave it up to him to decide what he believes once he has all of the information. Benjamin and I will tell him what we believe, but I refuse to tell him what is “the truth”, because in my opinion, truth is in the eye of the beholder. This all sounds well and good, except that it makes some of these tricky conversations even trickier. There are a lot of unknowns.
We recently got into a conversation about church when we wanted to Skype with my sister and her kids, but they couldn’t do it on Sunday morning because they were at church.
What is church? Can I go there? Why do some people go there? What is God?
Unfortunately this is one thing I won’t be able to Google my way out of.
Benjamin and I will have to come up with answers to each of these questions that align with our own beliefs and how we want to bring up our boys. While no one can give me those exact answers, and I’m certain we all approach these questions differently, I’m curious: When did your kids start asking about death/religion/sex/other loaded topics? How did you answer them? Are there any resources out there that address what level of an answer to give to your kid at each age/stage of development?