My soon-to-be five year old will do or say anything to delay bedtime. Recently she's wanted me to tell her about my day – what type of patients I saw, where their cancers were, and who was bald. If the patient was female and not bald, she wants to know if the hair was short or long. If the patient was male, she wants to know if he had a mustache or a beard. Hair, who has it and where it is, seems very important in her understanding of what I do.
Because the nature of the inquiry is flattering, I usually linger a while at her bedside and try to recall the patients I saw in clinic. I am careful to choose the details that are not inherently upsetting, but the longer the talk, the more likely I am to stumble into territory littered with the landmines of subject matter unbefitting the ears of preschoolers, especially in the few minutes before bedtime.
When it comes to the question of how to and under what circumstances do we “shelter” our children, I think I fall somewhere in the middle. Although sex and violence might be part of life, I think it’s appropriate to limit my children’s exposure to those themes while they are young. I'm not sure I feel the same about medical illness and problems faced by people undergoing treatment for cancer. I was ten the first time I went to Guatemala and freaked out when children tapped on our car doors begging for money. Even though I remember that experience as a very negative one, in retrospect it was probably a good introduction to the topic of inequality. I share the story to make the point that exposure to uncomfortable subject matter can be an important part of growing up.
But 5 isn't 10 and death isn't poverty, and I am still unsure of what I should and should not share with my preschooler.
She’s quite interested in the subject of death, even more so than the subject of hair, and I wonder if it's precisely this interest that makes me uncomfortable. She knows that “old” people die, but asks questions that would indicate she suspects there’s something more to the subject. I’m not sure if she knows that anyone can die at any time, and, more to the matter, if she poses the emotional intelligence to deal with the obvious implications of that realization.
I’ve heard before that the best course of action when children ask potentially age inappropriate questions is to answer only the question posed, in as direct and simple a manner as possible. But she asks a lot of questions, and each answer seems to spurn on a new set of inquiries. I hate the feeling of lying to my daughter, but I do it occasionally to get myself out of discussion I’d rather not have.
How much “real life” do you bring home?