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Thread: Children and "Heavy" Topics

  1. #1
    Minister of Love Roger Mexico's Avatar
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    Children and "Heavy" Topics

    A parenting thread.

    I guess I'm curious about your experiences/attitude toward conversations between adults and children regarding sensitive/difficult subjects.

    Those of you who are parents, how do you approach conversations with your children when talking about something might make them and/or you uncomfortable or potentially upset?

    Everyone else, how did these kinds of things (sex, death, etc.) tend to get handled by adults in your life when you were growing up?

    Are there topics you avoid talking about (or topics that adults avoided talking about with you)?



    Currently, my son and I are staying with my parents, who have had one of the family dogs from my teen years since my brothers and I grew up and moved out. He's very old--I forget since he was a shelter adoption when he was an adult already, but he's probably around 18 years old--and his health has deteriorated to the point where he's going to be euthanized in a few days.

    My dad made a point of telling me privately so I could "figure out how to handle it" as far as telling my son (Age 6), who "probably doesn't understand euthanasia."

    He's right that it's not something I've ever talked to my son about before, but my dad's take on it was to suggest possibly not explaining it. He even said "maybe, you know, the dog just... disappears and isn't here anymore."

    There's obviously no way that would work (my dad may be a bit more broken up over the whole thing than he's letting on--I recall him being pretty upset when our other dogs died), but I did think on it for a few hours. (Among options I considered abstractly was something like saying that the dog was going to the doctor and might not survive whatever was going to happen there.)

    Except I came back pretty quickly, reflexively, and strongly to the sentiment that I don't want to lie to my child, ever, unless absolutely necessary for some reason, and this doesn't cut it as one of those situations. I don't really like hiding things from him, either, if he's going to notice them and be curious about them.

    So my parents went out to see a play, and while they were gone I just went for it with my son. It started out as "the dog is very sick, and probably not going to live for very much longer" but then when he asked "how much longer?" the way that kids do, there wasn't really anything for it so I plunged ahead with a pretty straightforward "Here's what's going to happen: we're going to take the dog to the doctor, who is going to give him some medicine so that he dies; that way he won't have to be in pain anymore, and he won't die in a different way that would hurt more."

    My son was obviously not expecting to hear this, and a little bit shocked. Then he cried, and I cried a little. It really only lasted a minute or two, though, and then he seemed to take it in stride. He even went over to the dog and said something like "you're going to die, but that's OK."

    I was nervous about having the conversation, but I think doing it this way was basically easier for me than any other approach would have been. It wasn't that hard, since it was honest, whereas anything dishonest would have been harder and more distressing for me.

    I guess I'm usually like that when these sorts of topics come up. We've talked about death before, and I've been pretty blunt with "well, yes, someday I'm going to die, and someday you're going to die, because that's just what everyone does sooner or later." I remember when that was distressing to him (this line of discussion became a big thing several months ago). He asked about his grandparents and if they were going to die--I said "yes, some day." He said he didn't want them to die, and he didn't want to die. I basically said "well, we don't get a choice about it."

    I'm not religious, so there hasn't been and won't be any "so-and-so will be watching us from Heaven" or whatever, and I don't even go for the whole "well, they'll sort of still be with us in our memories" or anything like that. It was pretty much "well, when people die, they aren't around anymore and don't come back" since that strikes me as the most honest and informative response I can phrase in terms that a young child will comprehend. (No one human in our close family seems likely to die any time soon, so it wasn't an immediately pressing sort of conversation.)

    I would say this approach seems to have worked well as groundwork for the discussion we just had about the dog. He seems to get that death is natural, something he'll have to encounter and deal with in life, and there's no reason to be upset that it has to happen.

    I don't know--this seems like an INTP-ish way of dealing with "big topics" in teaching my child about life. Am I doing this different than you all have done/would do it?





    One thing I have avoided telling him is a lot of what the deal is with his mother. (She had a major psychotic break a few years ago, and although she's mostly just been absent of her own accord, I've also restricted her contact with him until she gets into treatment, which she's refused to do so far.) He asks where she is and I just say "I don't know", which is true. He asks when he'll see her again and I say "I don't know", which is true but perhaps arguably somewhat evasive. (A fully honest answer would be that I don't know if he'll see her again, at least any time before he's much older.) He has yet to hit me with a full-on, point-blank "why" question about the situation, but I can only imagine that will come at some point. I've gone as far as saying "she's sick, and she needs to see a doctor before she can live with you again."

    Mental illness seems difficult for a kid his age to comprehend. That's my motivation/excuse, although there's an element of trying to avoid saying anything judgmental about her. I'm not quite sure how I plan to handle that one whenever it does need to be dealt with.

    The one thing giving me a bit of pause about the dog conversation was how he started crying but then kind of lightly swatted at his eyes and said "I'll make the crying stop." Of course I said "no no, crying is OK; you should cry if you feel like crying" but he's probably picked up some avoidance of emotional expression from me, since I definitely don't do emotional expression well and I'm his only active parent now.

    Plus, he's been through a lot of shit for someone his age, and I worry about there being trauma that he's not showing. He takes things in stride remarkably well, which is good, but not if it entails emotional repression. I don't want to be passing along a message of "we don't show or talk about our emotions" but I'm probably guilty of conveying that more than I'd ever intend to.


    I don't know. I'm curious about how the issue of what to tell children about which aspects of life at what ages has played out in others' experience.

    Discuss.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger Mexico View Post
    I'm not religious, so there hasn't been and won't be any "so-and-so will be watching us from Heaven" or whatever, and I don't even go for the whole "well, they'll sort of still be with us in our memories" or anything like that. It was pretty much "well, when people die, they aren't around anymore and don't come back" since that strikes me as the most honest and informative response I can phrase in terms that a young child will comprehend.
    Apart from disagreeing with the claim of people being absolutely gone when they're dead – if someone had explained death to me that way, I would probably have been scarred for life when my parents died. After my mother's death I lived with a staunchly atheist couple, and their brazen, complacently dismissive answers to my questions about a putative higher being, the meaning of existence etc. always struck me as unsatisfactory for this reason also. Spirituality can be a great source of consolation in terrible times and I do not think it reprehensible to raise children in a somewhat spiritual (albeit not religious) manner. In an increasingly secular Western world, in which faith is frowned upon by a large part of the middle class, they'll grow up to be cynical, wise-cracking, church-renouncing adolescents soon enough... and consequently deprive themselves of a great comfort.

    As for another "heavy" topic – I don't remember anyone trying to have "the talk" with me. It should seem that more and more parents, especially modern fathers, are overwhelmed by the mere prospect of mentioning it. How do I know? A handful of my piano students have hesitantly brought up certain issues and angsts which I thought were more aptly discussed with their fathers – if for no other reason than a father being, er, anatomically equipped to be able to relate personally – but apparently there is such a low level of mutual trust between many sons and their fathers that none of them has the courage to broach delicate subjects, and that seeking advice from an outsider sadly seems the safer route.

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    Member MacGuffin's Avatar
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    My daughter is 6 as well, and I don't want to lie to her about subjects, even these "heavy" ones.

    However, I can't just drop all sorts of subjects on her that she is not prepared to understand yet. They can warp a young mind that doesn't have the mental/emotional tools to process them yet.

    So far just vague explanations have sufficed, but I know I'll have much tougher discussions in the years ahead.

    In short, I'm just feeling my way along as I go.

  4. #4
    In some form of gradient starting with early childhood through mid to late teens, I've been entirely open to all manner of discussions. From my most embarrassing mistakes, most traumatic memories, and every insight I could or can muster as a result of those, i've been an open book with my kids. There's very little they don't know my honest thoughts on.

    I think one experience with my son when he was very young kind of glued my stance on it. He'd reached the age in which Santa Clause was no longer a fun thing to play along with for the sake of the barely reality aware happy go lucky small child, but rather a blatant lie that felt misleading. I broke the news, and was taken aback by just how traumatic it was for him. Traumatic on two fronts: One, a sudden despair that the world was a boring and unsatisfactory sandwich of reality that lacked anything worth imagining or wishing for. Two, the realization that his own parents, for which he trusted, had been lying to him for years. That was a long conversation.

    My kids are pretty old now, 15 and 19. I can't say for sure what the cause and effect relationships are, but it seems that my kids aren't making any of their old man's mistakes. They have learned from my honesty. They make their own. Seems like progress too me. As for the trauma of knowing reality at an early age, I think the fact that there's a lot I find myself in awe of even with reality that I can share with my kids offsets the harshness of it.
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    a fool on a journey pensive_pilgrim's Avatar
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    I don't remember anyone ever talking with me about death. I can't imagine being too surprised to learn that everyone eventually disappears.

    Being separated from my mother at a young age was very traumatic for me, and I think it was made worse by being told explicitly that I should keep my feelings about it to myself. I think this may have been easier if the adults in my life had at least been open and honest with me about the reasons I couldn't have my mother in my life and needed to not talk about her.
    However, I can't just drop all sorts of subjects on her that she is not prepared to understand yet. They can warp a young mind that doesn't have the mental/emotional tools to process them yet.
    This sentence kind of pisses me off. Aren't you as a parent supposed to provide those mental/emotional tools? Otherwise you're just leaving your child unequipped to deal with life. And what the fuck does "warp a young mind" mean? Are there any examples of people who have been harmed by learning about sex and death at too young of an age? (Note: I'm not talking about having sex or experiencing the traumatic loss of close family)

    I was very curious about sex from a young age, but the response to that was to tell me I should feel ashamed and restrict my access to resources I could use to learn. My parents actually asked for and got my teacher to remove the section of the encyclopedia containing the entry on "sex" from my second grade classroom. I remember questions like "what does gay mean?" and "what is rape?"(that one was prompted by the news) got angry demands for silence and no answers.

    When I have children I'm going to be honest and give them all the answers they want. If something is scary or confusing I'll do my best to reassure and explain, but I'm not gonna filter or fool myself into thinking I'm going to shield them from needing to know these things.

    I think parents avoid these discussions primarily out of personal discomfort, and use "he's too young for that discussion" as an excuse for themselves. They want to see their children as innocent little cherubs, not growing human bodies who are going to go race with the other rats and eat and fuck and kill.

  6. #6
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    I think the approach to take probably depends on the kid. In retrospect, I think I was pretty perceptive as a kid, and a lot of kids are. My parents never talked about things like death or sex with me. Death never really came up, though I can't remember a time when I didn't understand what it meant. The first death in my family was our golden retriever and he died when I was 20 (unless you count hamsters and goldfish; I don't).

    As for sex, my parents took the common avoidance route, which was to shut down any mention of it as being something "not nice" to talk about. There was one mention of sex being "not that good", but I was already old enough to have formed my own opinion by then and just felt sorry for my mom. I got the message that they didn't want to talk about sex, but I never got the message that it was shameful and not to be enjoyed by decent people, even though I think that's what my parents were going for. My sister was a lot more sensitive and I think her views on sex were kind of warped for a while, but that's kind of a guess on my part.

    Basically, I think honesty is the best policy, but how much you spring on them and at what age is highly dependent on the child. Some kids are more sensitive than others. Also, this whole Santa Claus bullshit has to die. My first memory of Santa Claus was of my sister telling me that my parents were really Santa and showing me the room where they hid all the presents. I still went along with the charade for 5 or 6 years because presents, and I eventually stopped getting present from Santa without any explanation or even acknowledgement of the fact from my parents. Stupidest tradition ever, and it really annoys me that if you tell your kids the truth you either have to get them to lie to their peers or other parents get super pissed. I could post a whole wall of text ranting about Christmas, but I'll stop here.

    RM, I'm guessing your kid pretty perceptive too and understands a lot of what is going with your ex, which is why he doesn't press for more specific answers -- he knows you don't have them. The only thing I might add is that she would love to see him but can't because she's not well, if you haven't told him that already, so he doesn't feel abandoned. It seems like a lot of his questions about heavy topics are really just looking for confirmation of what he already suspected.

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    schlemiel Faust's Avatar
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    I don't have a strong perspective on this yet, but one thing I would not understand is the aversion to any and all upsetting information for a child. Because it "might" be "traumatic". Do people know what that even means anymore? Because this seems to cheapen the term. Kids rebound quickly for the most part, and it's usually groundless to assume that negative circumstances everyone must face will render them emotionally destabilized for the future. Granted, certain approaches may have to differ depending on the child and their level of sensitivity. I knew the Santa thing was a ruse at 6 and saw my grandfather in a casket at 5, neither of which occupied my attention days after the fact even if they weren't great experiences.

    Closest thing to trauma would have been socially humiliating experiences - these are difficult to discuss with your parents. They feel shameful and so aren't brought up at all. In and of themselves, they aren't usually a big deal - this only becomes a problem if one retreats to anti-social behavior in the long-term, something a parent could probably detect. I had, and it took me too long to rebuild my confidence and develop social skills.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Faust View Post
    I don't have a strong perspective on this yet, but one thing I would not understand is the aversion to any and all upsetting information for a child. Because it "might" be "traumatic".
    Dude, my best friend's mom didn't tell her that one of our other best friends died, because she thought it would be traumatic for her. This was two years ago. We are 38 years old. I mean, she would have found out eventually anyway, right? Or did her mom think she'd just be like "I wonder why Paul isn't emailing me back" for the rest of her life? Her family was always a bit odd though.

  9. #9
    Now we know... Asteroids Champion ACow's Avatar
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    One of my distinct memories from my early life is figuring out that Santa clause wasn't real. I was very young, and as was my way I didn't say anything to anyone, so I don't even know if my parents knew I knew, but the lesson I took away from it was that parents/adults will lie to children.

    I don't have much time to post now, but I too am reflecting on this notion of what "traumatic" means. We've had pets all my life, so my early life was interspersed with them dying. Of course I cried and it was really sad, but traumatic? I think people have replaced the word with anything that involves any sort of strong emotion/qualitative difference in the state of everyday life.

    I'm coming to think of human maturity as more like a muscle that gets stronger as its exposed to the varieties of life, rather than a fragile antique vase that needs to be protected. What people call trauma these days is getting ridiculous. Sure, there's issues of age-appropriateness (you don't sit a 4 year old through R18+ horror movies just for laughs). But sadness, failure, etc aren't traumatic: being locked in a basement and raped and beaten is traumatic.

    And on the contrary, when I see the people produced by the attempt to keep "trauma" (by which we mean emotional experience and dimensionality of real life) away from them, they're really unable to cope with the full force of variety that life can throw at them, and they don't put themselves out there and grab life by the balls...

  10. #10
    Hasta Siempre Madrigal's Avatar
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    They just want the same things we want. The truth. Things that make sense. Time doesn't heal shit and pain isn't a quantity that shrinks as we grow. As we mature it only adapts to our mental complexities and depth of feeling. Pain isn't harder in childood or easier in adulthood, so whenever you have to say something is when you have to say it. The added effect of disillusionment is devastating in itself - one shouldn't underestimate the damage of realizing late that things were always worse than they seemed. I think this should be avoided.

    My dog Spot ran away and everyone but me knew he had been hit by a bus; this I discovered 13 years later cause someone let it slip. All of the grief I hadn't been allowed to feel hit me when I found out, just the same. In other words, they hadn't protected me from anything all those years. I didn't care less. I never told them I found out though, I just let them believe their plan worked.

    But now I know why everyone would be silent when I'd say whoever adopted him must have seen my reward signs but liked him too much to give him back. Durrr. Dumbasses.
    Last edited by Madrigal; 07-26-2015 at 12:29 AM.
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