Myth Children Are Less Able Than Adults to Think About Death

We grownups flatter ourselves by suggesting that we are in a position to comfort our children when it comes to thinking about and dealing with death. If anything, the opposite is true. Compared to their parents, children have a greatly reduced grasp of death. As Emory University psychologist Melvin Konner notes in his brilliant classic The Tangled Wing, "From age 3 to 5 they consider it reversible, resembling a journey or sleep. After 6 they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one."2 Although rates of conceptual development vary, Konner places the first true grasp of the finality and universality of death around age 10—a realization that includes the first dawning deep awareness that it applies to them as well.

Critics of approaching the topic of death straightforwardly with children assume that nonreligious parents are telling their children, in essence, "deal with it." This is a willfully ignorant critique. Nonreligious parents are every bit as concerned for the comfort and happiness of their children as religious parents. They simply recognize that an early, naturalistic engagement with the topic makes it easier to come to terms this most difficult of human realities, not harder.

The fact that children tend not to fully "get" death during the early years has its downside—crossing the street would be easier, for example, if they did—but it also has a decided advantage. These are the years during which they can engage the idea of death more easily and more dispassionately than they will as adults. And such early engagement can only help to build a foundation of understanding and familiarity to ease and inform their later encounters with this most profound of all human realities.

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