How can you be the best parent you can be? Numerous books written by various “experts” advise us about how to be the best parent and get the best out of our children. The professionalisation of parenthood can leave parents questioning everything they do: am I giving the children a good enough diet? Are they reading enough? Is there too much television? Are we playing enough board games? Does it matter that other parents limit sweets to once a week? Should I worry that I didn’t play classical music to the children as often as I could have while they were babies? Will the children’s early literacy be hampered because I didn’t use flashcards with them while they were in their high chairs? What influences do we expose our children to?
For the past five years I haven’t had the news on when the children are in the room for fear that this is not appropriate viewing. The only television they see is children’s programming. There is a modern philosophy for effective parenting which shies away from traditional discipline (for fear of upsetting children and because of what other parents might think) and suggests instead that parents praise the good and ignore the bad. Modern children are more likely to be told “that’s great, well done” (in response to even a mediocre effort) than to hear the phrase “do as I have told you”. But I wonder if there is a danger that modern parents are creating a hyper-real reality for their children.
My eldest son is in the reception class at the local Catholic primary school. In the spring, just before the Easter holiday, the children had an incubator in their classroom where they hatched some chicks. The first chick hatched on the Monday morning before the children broke up for their holiday. By Thursday morning they had 13 healthy, fluffy chicks chirping away in a corner of the classroom. But the 14th chick didn’t look so healthy. The children prayed for the poorly chick before home time. The classroom teacher came out to tell the parents she didn’t think the chick was likely to make it through the night. I slightly baulked at the news. Some children have experienced the death of a pet or grandparent by the time they have started school. They might be aware of death via computer games or the television. But so far James had been shielded from any talk; this would be his first introduction. I had even shied away from reading him Little Red Riding Hood.
It seems that this is typical of modern mothers. A poll of 3,000 parents carried out last year by Thebabywebsite.com found that a quarter of mothers didn’t read their children certain fairy tales because they were either too frightening or politically incorrect. A third of parents rejected Little Red Riding Hood, in particular. In fact, I had tried reading this once when James was four, but he was terrified and said he didn’t want me to read it again. But death is part of life.
The chick died. The teacher buried it in a corner of the class garden; more prayers were said. James began to talk a little bit about death. “Animals die, but people don’t die,” he said. It might have been more helpful if I had persevered through some of the traditional tales with James, allowing him to process the reality of life early on, through the comfort of a story in which (as in the Christian tradition) ultimately all ends “happily ever after”.
There is other literature designed to help children understand and cope with loss. Good titles for young children include Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr, Granpa by John Burningham and Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley.
As we approached Easter this year I began to reflect that on this issue, I had not been the best parent I could be. I had been hoodwinked by a modern piety which says that children should be introduced to death cautiously, with nervous attention paid to emotional implications. I am among many parents who have failed to explain that the sausages on the children’s plates have come from pigs. But this hyperreal reality which shields children from death is hardly conducive to raising balanced young people equipped with the necessary skills to grapple with life. At the end of term assembly I watched James’s face as he took on a puzzled, and then a rather shocked expression, as the Year 6 boy playing Jesus on Good Friday died on the Cross.
Historically, children were exposed to death on a regular basis, as mortality rates were often quite high. Until the 20th century most people died at home, not in hospitals or nursing homes. Children were not shielded from death, which was accepted as natural. Wicked stepmothers are common in fairy tales, and these are not tales about families affected by divorce – Snow White and Cinderella’s mothers are dead. Such a tragedy is not so commonplace in modern times; but it is not unheard of either.
During the Easter holidays one of the little girls in my son’s class lost her mother. She died in the hospice late on Holy Saturday. I heard the news on Easter Sunday; and I shied away from telling my son. I left it to his teacher to tell the whole class after the holiday. That afternoon he told me he had some sad news: the mummy we had prayed for on Good Friday had not got better. She had died and gone to heaven. “That’s very, very sad,” I said.
Every morning since James has clung to me and cried, not wanting to leave me. There is guidance available to support the families and children of those who have a parent who is dying, but situated as I was on the periphery of this bereavement – deeply saddened and indirectly affected – I wasn’t sure how to break the news to James. I fear that my actions and good intentions have been counterproductive.
As with most topics, communicating with children about death should be honest and direct. Children need to grieve as much as adults do. They need to be able to share their feelings and talk about how they are going to miss the person who has died. If I had let James know how sad I felt, and let him see me crying, perhaps it would have been easier for him to work through his own feelings.
The children in James’s class have all responded differently. One little girl, whose grandad regularly attends Mass, specifically asked if she could come with him one Sunday to say a prayer for the mummy who had died, who had been a family friend. She had wanted to make a rocket out of cardboard to send flowers and a card to heaven. I suggested to her after Mass that she could leave flowers or a card in the Lady Chapel if she would like. She started to cry. Children need to mourn; they need to be allowed to cry and express their feelings if they want to.
Another little boy has been very worried about leaving his mummy for fear that she might die while he is at school. Both this little boy, and James, have been confused about temporary and fatal illnesses. After two or three days of tears and subdued behaviour from the boys, their teacher tried to explain to them both that the mummy who died was very, very poorly, but that neither of their mummies were. The very good advice on the Hospicenet.org website about talking to children about death urges parents to make clear to young children that most people usually get better after being unwell and only very serious illness may cause death: although we are poorly sometimes, we usually get better.
The mother who died had remarkable faith. She knew what was happening and with her husband prepared their daughter well. One of her many parting gifts has been to teach the children in Class R a significant life lesson (somehow made more poignant by the fact it was taught at Easter) and encourage them in their own journey of faith. Death is no longer a taboo. I’m grateful indeed for this; my eyes have been opened. Gone is my cautious piety.
The children have shown themselves to be capable of engaging with the reality of death. I’m left wondering if the hyper-real reality in which James lived before Easter was really constructed for his benefit.
Dr Lucy Russell is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons