Awareness of mortality
Recently, I was driving in the city with my kids. I saw a woman walking on the sidewalk who looked very, very old. I asked the kids how old they thought she might be. We guessed in her 80s or 90s. Then my daughter (6 years old) asked if the lady was going to die soon. I told her I don’t know but that there was probably a good chance that she would die within the next few years.
We reflected on the fact that everyone dies and no one knows when their time will be. Right then, my youngest son (3 years old) picked up on the conversation. “I don’t want to die!” I looked in the rear-view mirror and could see that he was sincerely horrified at the thought. I tried to say something reassuring, but he whined and tossed his head back-and-forth a bit, “but, no, I don’t want to die!” letting out even a bit of a cry. Fortunately, his mind was onto something else soon enough. Either he got distracted or he accepted this newfound truth after seeing that the rest of us were not particularly worried about it at that moment.
It’s not as if death, dying, and killing were not already a part of his vocabulary. He’ll often play games with other kids, in which wild animals attack and kill each other, or he gets stabbed to death, lying on the ground, playing dead. But this interchange in the car told me in an instant that he actually understood what death was, having assumed it was not something that would ever apply to him (except for when pretending during a shoot-out or fighting match).
So I was struck by two things: 1) the fact that he already understood what death was (inasmuch as any of us can), and 2) the suddenness of his recognition, at 3 years old, that he too would die someday.
I’m not sure what lesson to draw from this, other than a reminder that kids often understand more than we assume they do. So be careful what you say in front of them. They’re always watching and listening.