Q. My children’s pet parakeet died today, and I still haven’t told the kids. What do I say? And how do I say it? It will be the first death they’ve ever had to face.
A. It’s not easy to explain a pet’s death — or any death — to a child, but it will be better if you tell them simply, directly, sympathetically and as soon as they come home. If you say that Birdie has gone “to sleep,” they may not want to go to bed tonight. And if you ask them to walk the dog before you tell them Birdie has died, they may wonder whether you’re holding back on some more bad news the next time the dog needs a walk. A child’s trust is built on honesty and clarity but never on deception.
Once you have told the children your sad news and given them some hugs, you should sit back and listen to them talk about their parakeet. Don’t expect them to react the same way, however. While one child will want to tell everything to everybody, because that is his nature, his introspective sister may take a while to tell anyone, even her best friend.
When you’ve heard enough laments, give the children a pretty dish towel to wrap around the bird, a box to put it in and some spoons to dig a hole in the back yard. The parakeet was their pet, not yours, and they are the ones who should bury it.
You should go to the funeral, of course, but you’ll probably be surprised, once again, to see how differently your children grieve. One child may make a speech about the bird, another may keep as quiet as a Quaker, while the third one may say the Pledge of Allegiance (hand over heart) and sing “God Bless America.” When you let your children express grief in their own way, you’re showing them that death is a natural part of life. This will make it easier for them to accept the deaths of people they love in the years to come.
The death of this pet is just one of the small teachable moments that are sprinkled all through childhood, and every one of these moments has a back story that can strengthen a child’s character. While piano lessons might teach your daughter the rudiments of a Chopin sonata, the more she practices it, the better it will sound and the stronger her fortitude will be. If she has enough of it, she will slog through a bad college course, stick with a miserable job or care for a special-needs child without feeling sorry for herself.
And so it is with all teachable moments. The child who is in love with soccer will kick that ball anytime, anywhere, but if he has a good coach he will also learn to play fair, to cooperate with his teammates and to go up against players who are better than he is even though he knows that his team will probably lose. These are the lessons that really matter, and they will last a lifetime.
Chores become teachable moments, too, if you give your children different ones every few weeks so they won’t get bored and if you don’t look disappointed by the results. It will take a few years for a 6-year-old to make a great salad and for an 8-year-old to fit as many dishes in the dishwasher as you do, but they should still make salads and load the dishwasher whether they have homework or not. Chores give confidence to children; they make them more independent and strengthen the family bonds.
Although there aren’t many teachable moments to encourage generosity, you can create your own if you have your children run errands for your neighbors or lug their trash cans to the curb, and if you ask them what they are going to give for Christmas or Hanukkah, rather than what they want to get. A child is seldom too busy, too important or too young to help others — even a toddler. With careful direction, an 18-month-old can pick up a newspaper from a neighbor’s yard and carry it up to her porch, even though he’ll want to do it again (and again and again).
The more you emphasize the virtues now, the more your children will avoid the vices when they’re grown.
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