A toddler learns about life and death

My mother in law’s house is in a great location – close to the park, close to town, but it’s also right next to the water plant. That means water, in the South, in the the summer. That means mosquitoes. It’s like her little sloped driveway leads to a valley which houses a protected mosquito population.

So when I go to pick Maya up at the end of the day, part of our dance is getting the car doors open and closed quickly enough to keep as many buzzers as possible out. It never works. Once Maya and I are all buckled up in the car and pulling up the driveway, we roll down all of the windows and pick up speed to hopefully cause the blood-suckers to catch a ride on the wind wave.

Inevitably, there is always at least one that manages to maintain its in-vehicle spot for the duration of the ride home. My theory is that he tucks himself in down by my feet and the pedals and gets all warm, fat, and happy feeding on my ankle flesh. I have the “itchy bites” (as Maya calls them) to prove it.

The other day, we were halfway home when I realized there was still one stowaway buzzing around in the car. I opened my window and Maya’s rear passenger window to strategically create an air stream. I thought it worked, so the windows went back up and the AC back on. But then, Maya starts crying hysterically and yelling “Mosquito!! Mosquito!!” I thought her reaction to getting bitten was a tad on the strong side for a girl who has more itchy bites on her arms than teeth in her mouth.

But then I realized that when she felt the bite on her foot, she instinctively slapped at it, and there on her perfect baby-child foot, lay a flattened and dead mosquito. This sudden awareness that she had taken life broke her poor sweet heart!

My first reaction was, “Good job, babe! You got it!” but then I thought for a bit; she was so upset, and here I was – cheering her on for flattening a bug.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still promote the smacking and flattening and smushing of mosquitoes, cockroaches, and some other undesirables, but I became totally aware that my reaction was building a link in her between smashing and cheering.

Okay, okay, I know I’m being a little dramatic, but I have thought a lot lately about how we form kids’ attitudes and how important semantics are in how children perceive things.

So what angle do I take to begin the discussion about life and death? How do I say it’s okay when some things die, but it’s also okay to be sad about it? And while I may start with the mosquito, I’m really thinking ahead to when we will have to have the “Your dog has been sent to the farm” conversation. I don’t want to lie; I don’t want to whitewash it. But I don’t want to freak her the F out either – I mean, her heart was broken by a mosquito, and I love that it was; it shows how untainted she still is by this world.

Any advice about how to have this serious talk with a toddler?

Having a serious talk with the baby
Having a serious talk with the baby

0 thoughts on “A toddler learns about life and death”

  1. OK, no advice here, just another anecdote. Over in the non-wilderness of Seattle live my brother and sister-in-law and my niece Nina. Long ago, when Nina was a toddler, maybe Maya’s age, she came across a young and injured crow in the back yard. She and her dad Russ nursed the thing back to health. (This is way before West Nile, etc., calm down.). She took to naming the bird “Crowy”; not the most original, but on such matters involving four year olds, you go with the flow. Who really cares, anyway? The day came to let the crow go free, and so it did. Being among the more intelligent of bird species, it knew enough to hang around for the next few weeks looking for the occasional handout.

    One day, Crowy dies in the back yard. Nina was bewildered. Russ and Jane found themselves in the same situation you now find yourself: explain death to a four year old. Not sure what they said, but it apparently went over OK. The next week, when Grandma, another Seattlite, and knowing all about Crowy, asked “How’s Crowy?”, without skipping a beat or even looking up, Nina replied: “Crowy’s OK. He’s dead.” And trust me, there were no religious sort of heaven stories involved. Can’t make that stuff up.

    Maybe tell Maya, “that mosquito’s OK. He’s dead.” and see where it goes. Or not.

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