Teachable Moments for Children*
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Highline College, Des Moines, Washington
In 1963 it was the assassination of a president. In 1986 it was the explosion of the Space Shuttle witnessed by millions of children on TV. September 11, 2001 was the terrorist attack. Beginning in 2020, it was the Corona virus. For the past 20 years it has been school shootings, the most recent in Uvalde, Texas. Each of these shocking events thrust our children into the face of death in a sudden and graphic way.
As much as you can for a moment, I want you to imagine that you are a ten-year-old child. Kids your age were killed as they innocently sat in their classroom. Many questions spring to your young mind: “Am I safe?” “Why did this happen?” “Why did these kids have to die?” “Where are they now?” “What is death?” “How will their family members live without them?” “Could this happen to me or to someone in my family?”
Questions like these are difficult enough for an adult to deal with, let alone a child. Many children under age 10 have not yet reached a cognitive level that would enable them to process information regarding death with adult-like logic.
In addition to cognitive limitations, an obstacle toward understanding death has to do with the following fact: For the past fifty years, most American children have grown up with few personal, traumatic death experiences. It is a rare child today who has experienced the death of one of their playmates or was allowed to be present at the deathbed of a dying relative in the home. Through no fault of their own, our children (and many of us as well) have grown up in a death-sanitized environment—until a horrendous event emerges. Death for most children of past generations has happened to bad guys on TV or to older people in a hospital. Now, for the current generation of young people, the continued presence of the Corona virus and the increase in school shootings, death has come to thousands of people, some their own age.
What can we do? Each of these historical events has had the potential to afford a unique opportunity for parents and educators to begin a dialogue with children about death. Whenever we are interested in educating a child about any difficult issue, we as parents must be vigilant for something called a “teachable moment,” i.e., those moments which are provided by spontaneous occurrences of events that effectively set the stage for parent-child discussion. As a parent, you can use these recent events as a way to ask questions, clarify misconceptions, and reinforce beliefs about a variety of death-related issues. To help get you started, here is a list of 10 examples that may stimulate a child’s discussion of death. To guide you, each idea listed below is followed by a question that could be asked by a parent. Any one of the questions can serve as a catalyst for a discussion about death.
Category of Idea
Questions You Can Ask Your Child
Understanding the permanency of death
“Do you think the children who died can come back to life?
Belief about life after death
“Where do you think the kids who died are now?”
Fears about death
“Is there anything that scares you about this?
Issues of safety
Category of Idea
“What can I do and you do to keep yourself safe?
Questions You Can Ask Your Child
“How do you think the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are feeling about the death of their loved ones?”
Reminders of other deaths
“Has this made you think of Grandpa’s death?
Let’s talk about that for a moment.”
Spiritual aspects of death
“Do you believe that there is a God? If so, what do you think about God’s role in this?
“Has this bothered you?” If so, how? Do you have problems with your stomach, sleep, etc.?”
Thoughts of ones’ own death
“Has this made you think about your own death? In what way?”
Philosophy of life
“Have all of these deaths made you think about how you would like to live your life?”
Be aware that some children will not respond well to these questions. Sometimes the “moment” isn’t right. Bringing up questions at another time (a day or two later) without being a nag may eventually produce an open discussion. You will find that even a few weeks after a good discussion, your child may have forgotten or misinterpreted part of the information. Recycling through notions of death and life issues is the way children learn. After you ask these questions, it may happen that your child becomes upset. As difficult as this may be, remember: your child will later be more upset if you try to hide the truth and not prepare him or her for the next terrible event.
A word of caution: Do not lecture. This is an excellent time to practice your best listening skills. As much as possible, let the child do most of the talking. This is what my friend Linda Wong-Garl did with her first and second-graders during the days following September 11th. “It was amazing” she said. “I sat with the kids, asked questions, and let them talk. It was magic.”
To repeat: close your mouth. This is your child’s time to freely discuss any areas of confusion. Do not criticize or engage in argumentative tussles. For elementary and preschool children, you may want to provide crayons and paper. If you feel compelled to suggest alternative explanations to what your child believes, do so gently. Next, paraphrase, i.e., summarize back to your child what he or she has just said, e.g., “So you’re saying that death to you seems like…”
Remember, there is never a “good” time to talk about death. As it is with sex, death is often a neglected area of parental responsibility or delegated to the one-shot “facts of life” lecture, usually much past the time it was needed. We tend to think of death when a tragic event hits us personally. This is a time when we as parents can use a catastrophe –one which for the majority of us fortunately does not carry the sting of personal tragedy – as a positive way to begin to fill the vacuum of death-related issues in the knowledge base of our children. In these uncertain times your child needs to be prepared for subsequent national loss of life rather than be shielded from a painful truth. Don’t wait. Sit down this evening with your child and ask a question or two. Take the first step in giving a gift that can last a lifetime—the gift of knowledge—however painful that knowledge may be.
*Thanks to Mel Erickson, Child Grief Specialist for her encouragement and editing suggestions.