In this part of the interview, Dale McGowan discusses how to talk to children about the difficult issues such as mystery and death. As well, what do you do if your child doesn’t believe your answers?
GwbG: Many parents squirm when faced with the big questions from their children. Where do babies come from? Why isn’t the world fair? What happens when you die? Do you have tried-and-tested answers for these questions or did you find yourself scrambling?
DMcG: I never squirm. What I do is hold my breath, drop to my metaphorical knees, and crawl humbly toward the question like a supplicant. These questions are among the biggest rewards and privileges for me as a dad, and I’ve recently become (sadly) aware that they are tapering off as my kids get older and their dialogue naturally becomes more of an internal monologue.
But I do scramble. I usually start by freaking out at the kid a bit for the pure quality and worthwhileness of the question. They love to freak Dad out with a good question. My next step is not so much the provision of an answer as the reinforcement of the questioning impulse. I don’t shy away from offering my own opinions, but they know that’s what they are, and I always try to get their own uninfluenced thoughts first. It’s pure pleasure for me.
GwbG: Have you ever been left speechless or stunned by a question from a child?
DMcG: Yes, but not in the expected ways. Mostly by the complexity and nuance of prior thought a question can reveal.
GwbG: Death is a particularly difficult one. Have you found that a child needs to be comforted or needs an explanation when dealing with death? Or do children work through these things themselves? How do you explain the mystery of death to a child?
DMcG: We all need to be comforted in the face of the impossibly unfair reality of our eventual end. Yes, it’s beautiful in its way, it’s ever so necessary, blah blah blah. It still evokes pure fury from me as a dead man on leave.
I would even say that we grown-ups flatter ourselves by suggesting that we are in a position to comfort our children when it comes to thinking about and dealing with death. If anything, the opposite is true. Compared to their parents, children have a greatly reduced grasp of death. As Emory University psychologist Melvin Konner notes in The Tangled Wing, “From age three to five they consider it reversible, resembling a journey or sleep. After six they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one.” Though rates of conceptual development vary, Konner places the first true grasp of the finality and universality of death around age ten—a realization that includes the first dawning deep awareness that it applies to them as well.
The fact that children tend not to fully “get” death during the early years has its downside—crossing the street would be easier, for example, if they did—but it also has a decided advantage. These are the years during which they can engage the idea of death more easily and more dispassionately than they will as adults. And such early engagement can only help to build a foundation of understanding and familiarity to ease and inform their later encounters with this most profound and difficult of all human realities.
GwbG: Do children accept mystery, or accept it when a parent doesn’t know, or at least when a parent admits to not knowing the answer to some big, heartfelt question?
DMcG: Kids are entirely comfortable with the idea that much is unknown. There’s no reason they should expect their parents to know everything unless the parent has gone out of his or her way to cultivate that silly idea. Parents who do that also implant the dangerous idea of the infallible authority. I prefer to model breathtaking ignorance and humility before Newton’s “great ocean of [unknown] truth.” Takes the pressure off a bit as well.
GwbG: At some point [Heaven forbid!] your own child may even disagree with you or not accept your explanations! Is this the end of the world?
DMcG: I not only expect it, I explicitly invite them to do so. My kids have heard the invitation to think for themselves and differ from me so often that they now roll their eyes whenever I repeat it. “Now, that’s just my opinion,” I say. “I want you to think about it yourself and make up your own…”
I never even get to the end of the sentence anymore. “I know, I know, you want me to think for myself!” they say. Excellent. Message received.
Big thanks go to Dale for taking the time with these questions. I particularly like the combination of the words “breathtaking ignorance”. Parents have a tough enough job as it is without having to carry the title of ‘infallible authority.
My brother at one point was overwhelmed with the questions from his very young son. He finally had to look at his boy and say, “Look, I’m still learning all this stuff myself, you know.”
It was a small moment really just between them, but it turned them into a team of practically inseparable explorers.
On the weekend I will post a commentary on the week and with any luck drum up some tougher questions for Dale.
Thanks again Dale. And message definitely received!