Saturday, 6 July 2013

Little White Lies

I recently read something suggesting you don’t allow your kids to have pets. Now, in some ways I agree. Jess wants a dog, but I know that it’ll be me that ends up walking it, cleaning up after it and feeding it, so she’s not getting one – at least not until she’s old enough to take responsibility for it. I did however allow her to have a small fishtank for her birthday and she has half a dozen fish now. Sometimes she likes feeding them but more often than not, I do it; I don’t mind putting a pinch of food into a tank though.

However, one of the main reasons for not allowing pets (according to this particular piece) was because it meant you would have to lie to your kids. One submitter talked about how they’ve had three identical budgies; each time a bird dies, she slips out and buys another one to replace it so that her child doesn’t know it’s dead. Another talked about doing the same with fish, replacing one particular goldfish no less than 12 times!

I don’t understand. Why lie to your kids about that? We all tell lies sometimes, I can’t deny that; “Father Christmas comes down the chimney,” “eating your crusts will give you curly hair”, “eating carrots will make you see in the dark”. But why lie about a dead fish?

We are so protective of our children. We are so scared of upsetting them that we do everything we can to keep them happy. In some ways, that’s great: when a cuddle can fix a grazed knee or a child wants a bedtime story, there’s no harm in fulfilling their wishes. We all like to make our children smile. But we can’t protect them from everything, and we shouldn’t be trying to.

Sadly, at some point in their lives, our kids are going to have some experience of death. Whether that’s an elderly relative, a friend, or a neighbour’s dog, it’s going to happen. And although we want to put that experience off as long as possible, I’d much rather Jess’s first experience of death is a fish that she’s not too attached to than, say, a grandparent.

A friend’s mother died recently, and she had to explain to her three girls. They seemed to grasp it, but three months on, the youngest (aged 4) is still asking daily when grandma is coming back. When reminded that grandma had died, she just asks “yes, but when will she wake up again?” She also talks about ‘digging her back up’ so she can play. Even the eldest (aged 10) seems confused.

I don’t suggest for a second that dealing with a dead fish will make handling the death of a person any easier. But personally I’d rather be handling questions about the fish than the person. At least when the worst happens, hopefully Jess will understand that when someone goes, that’s it – they aren’t going to come home and play with them. She’ll be devastated, but she can grieve properly and hopefully when we do talk about the person, we can talk about the happier times we had with them rather than going around in the ‘when are they coming back?’ loop.

Inevitably, some of Jess’s fish died. She’s had them for three months and lost three in that time. Two of them went quickly, the third got stressed when we had to clean the tank. We’ve had a conversation about them each time, given them a ‘burial’ of sorts, and she’s asked questions. She hasn’t been particularly upset although she has had a couple of ‘Where’s fishy gone?’ moments. She has obviously taken it in though as pre-school informs me she spent an hour last week telling her key worker about her dead fish!

It never occurred to me to replace the fish before Jess realised. Pets die sometimes and if you have a pet, you have to deal with that whether you are forty or four.

I know that it will be much more traumatic when it’s something like a dog, an animal they have built up some sort of relationship with. But of course with an animal like that, you couldn’t secretly replace it anyway.

If you are animal lovers, get whatever pets you want. If you don’t want animals, then don’t. But don’t refuse to get them because it’ll mean lying to your kids when they die. We tell our kids not to lie, although we know that sometimes it’ll be necessary – but lying about the death of a pet isn’t necessary. It’s not protecting our kids in the long run. Our job as parents is to get our kids ready for ‘life’, and teaching them that everything in the world is perfect and bad things don’t happen is doing them a disservice. It’s lying just for the sake of it – and that’s never good.

1 comment:

  1. Jess was at my place a year or two ago when a fish had died. She watched me scoop it out with interest (she wanted to see the fish itself more closely, I think), and then asked what I was doing with it. It was "freshly" dead so it looked just the same but it was totally still.

    I told her it had died. Showed her it had stopped breathing. Showed her it didn't respond like the others (i.e. it should be trying to get away and avoiding the net). She was fascinated, but I don't think she'd seen that sort of thing before.

    I don't think the question of what "dead" means came into her head at that point, she was too busy watching what I was doing and trying to see what was happening.

    I dug a small hole in the garden, she helped me bury it. Why? Because if we don't bury it, the cats will try to dig it up and eat it. That's nature for you. Why do we have to throw it away though? Because it's dead and it will go rotten like food does, and we'll just be left with a little smelly skeleton in the fish tank and it'll make the others ill. So better for us to get it away. What will happen to it in the ground? It'll turn into food for the plants and disappear.

    I don't think there's anything too "shocking" for a children of 3/4 to understand there. There's nothing horrendously gross, or emotionally testing in that part. It wasn't a "favourite" fish or a named fish, admittedly, but I don't see it would be any different. If Nemo has died, then he's died. It's a permanent change of state that he's undergone. Like when a toy is broken, it's broken, and you have to throw it away, no matter if it's your favourite or not.

    The connection of a body being food - having to eat food to make the body, and when it stops eating food it dies, and then being food itself (for cats) whether it's alive or dead, and being able to go rotten like food once it's dead, and then becoming food for plants if you bury it, was part of the big "Where does food go in my belly?" conversation later on.

    She's bright enough to ask a question if something worries her. I don't think she was particularly "stunned", she was just interested. And why not? It's quite an interesting and important transition to undergo. The fact that it's a one-way transition is no different to explaining a broken glass, but the object itself might be more precious. An understanding of this can only help her to know what's going on, know what to expect (i.e. Nemo won't be coming back but we can get ANOTHER, different, Nemo).

    It doesn't mean she won't miss Nemo, or Grandad/whatever, if they should die. It just means she understands that the process is one-way and feels comfortable about knowing what's happened, even if she didn't want it to happen.

    Surely at the point of a death, the last thing you want is to not know WHY they can't just come back, and confusion about what's actually happened at all? There's a lot more important things to deal with then.