A very helpful parenting book I once read called “Just Tell Me What To Say” by Betsy Brown Braun said (excuse me while I paraphrase... loosely... from a book I read three years ago) that bugs are a great way to teach one’s children about death. They’re not fuzzy or cute. They’re not pets. And they have short life cycles, so you can talk about how they are eggs, and then grubs or maggots or whatever, and then bugs, and then they are all done living and they die. You can talk about how most animals live much longer than bugs, and people live much, much, much longer.
Mostly, I try not to kill bugs in front of the kids. They watch Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends, and have formed attachments to all sorts of bugs on that show, from Stinky the stink bug to Bounce the bed bug (shudder), and of course Miss Spider and all of her adorable buglets. The exterminator came last week to spray the house. I just said he was spraying the bugs. I didn’t tell them that he was killing them.
So, um, what happens when there is a spider crawling on your kid, and your husband brushes it off and then steps on it? I’m not sure what the teachable moment is in that scenario. The kids were definitely watching and paying attention, but they didn’t seem too traumatized. I just hummed a little of the “be good to bugs” theme song and let it go. My kids don’t like real bugs very much, so I don’t think we have scarred them for life or anything with one callous stomp of a shoe. I guess bug-stomping might be a good way to teach them about tsunamis and earthquakes. I mean, really, the bug never saw it coming.
Our early bug-death teachings have led to some very strange phenomena in our house. Death is now forever associated with stink bugs, a highly prevalent dead bug in this part of the country. I guarantee that if my kids understood word association and I said, “dead,” they would both respond enthusiastically in unison with, “like a stink bug.” When my kids are angry at one another and want to pull out all the stops, while still “using their words,” they will yell to the other, “You’re dead like a stink bug!” It is simultaneously hilarious and deeply disturbing. (No, we don’t allow them to speak to each other like that, but it has not completely extinguished yet.)
I’m not really sure how to move from talking about bug death to talking about human death with my kids. We have touched on it with regard to going in the street without holding Mommy’s hand. Because the cars, of course, would squish them “like a stink bug.” I think they understand at least that much, because it translated well to a deer I narrowly avoided hitting recently with the kids in the car. After our near-miss, the kids said that the deer was almost squished like a stink bug, and he wasn’t being careful, and he needed to hold his mommy’s hand in the street. So they get it, sort of. But other than vehicular dangers, I don’t think they have any understanding of what death means. We’re not a heaven and angels family, although if anyone close to us passes, I will probably wind up using some variant of heaven in my explanation. I’m not a worms-and-dirt believer myself, but I think my religious mélange might be a little too complicated for them. Heaven... so nice... so simple… so tempting in the face of grief.
Death is confusing, even for adults. It’s hard to know how much kids can take in. Some of my kids’ playmates were told about angels by a grandparent. You know, angels… like people, but with wings. You know what else looks like people with wings? Fairies. My kids’ friends now think that when we die, we turn into fairies. If you’re 3 or 4, that sounds kind of awesome, and maybe not sufficient inducement to hold Mommy’s hand in the street. Then again, heaven doesn’t really sound like a place to avoid either. “Worms will eat you” is probably going to be the most effective deterrent, all things considered. It’s a pretty good deterrent. Maybe I should start eating healthier... hmmm...
This week I taught my kids the concept and word “alliteration.” (For those adults reading this who don’t know what that means, alliteration is a poetic device in which words start with the same sound—often the same letter—like “Baa baa black sheep” using the repetition of the “b” sound.) My kids are interested in rhyming right now, but often give an alliteration example (like octopus and octagon) and say, “They rhyme.” Do they need to know what alliteration is? No. But I do think it will be kind of hilarious when they come across an example and one of them pulls the word alliteration out of nowhere. I kind of can’t wait to see people’s faces when that happens. If you can’t teach your kids stuff that will amuse you, where’s the fun in this parenting gig? But I digress… My point is that if they can understand the concept of alliteration, they are probably ready to move further into the concept of death.
But am I ready? Am I ready to field questions about heaven and souls and who is going to die when? The simple answer is no. But maybe, like becoming a parent, you’re never really ready. But, also like becoming a parent, maybe it’s still better (or at least easier) to do it on your own terms. I would rather they learn about death from me than learning it “on the streets.” I guess it’s time to get a goldfish…