“I’m really scared, Dad.” So began a conversation with my little lad the other night, when he appeared at our bedroom door after I thought he’d long-since drifted off to sleep. “When are you going to die?” Before I could attempt some kind of meaningful answer to such a significant question, he immediately followed it up with another thought which, in his mind, was just as important: “And also, Dad, I’m very sad because when I’m at the really big school, my scooter won’t be big enough for me any more.”
I can’t really remember my parents’ approach to tackling life’s big questions with me when I was four – but when it comes to how I’m handling things, I tend to just muddle on through. Despite my best intentions, and the fact that I know these questions will definitely come up at some point, things rarely go to plan. I’m still slightly scarred by the whole ‘tadpoles and eggs’ conversation about how babies are made, and the look of utter confusion on my son’s face when I tried to explain to him the meaning of life is something I’ll never forget (more on that here: https://diaryofadesperatedad.com/2012/12/12/the-birds-and-the-balls/). When it comes to the cheery topic of death, it’s surely even more important to try and give your child a vaguely acceptable answer.
One of the challenges of having school-age kids is that you can no longer sugar-coat everything in life – and nor should you. Our middle one, who’s nearly three, still has a blissfully positive and rosy approach: everyone is presumed to be a friend rather than a foe; days are filled with fun activities and play-dates galore; and life’s big questions have yet to make their mark. But by the time you’re nearly five, you have an understanding of the world around you, and an awareness that not everything is always as it should be. So as a parent, when your child tearily asks you about dying, it’s not really acceptable to tell them everything will always be okay. Setting your kids up with a false sense of security is pretty irresponsible; but equally, telling them that, you know, Dad may well die tomorrow or contract some kind of hideous illness, isn’t exactly the right thing to do either.
I therefore tried to explain a few things to him: Mum and Dad would hopefully be alive until he’s a really big grown-up; if anything ever happens to me, Mum will be here to look after him and his sisters; and there are so many people who love him – grandparents, godparents, friends of ours he delights in playing with – that there wouldn’t be any shortage of adults to do the stuff he enjoys doing with Dad. To be honest, I was quite pleased with my answer (it was certainly better than the tadpole one). I felt I’d been clear, without overdoing the detail, and I was confident I’d given him a response that even my wife would have been quite impressed with.
So, I waited for a moment, allowing him to take it all in. And then he looked at me, rolled his eyes, and sighed. “That’s fine, Dad – but what about my scooter?”