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Jan 09 2013

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

~~~

*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    smrnda

    Interesting post, I never thought there was any consensus that an actual, literal hell exists in Judaism? I’m part Jewish but mostly ignorant of the culture as only my grandparents observant in the least (and pretty much were only interested in the culture and holidays), but I thought that was much more a Christian thing.

    All said, I think a problem with Pascal’s wager is that you can’t really choose to believe something – belief is kind of a reaction when the evidence appears convincing. I mean, you can pretend to believe and even put on a lifetime performance, but in the end, you can only say you believe if you’ve got a big ability for self-deception.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I never thought there was any consensus that an actual, literal hell exists in Judaism?

      I think you’re right. From what I’ve heard from rabbis, there’s not really a literal “hell,” it’s more that heaven is “being with god” and hell is “being apart from god.” Not really sure what that means, though.

      I think a problem with Pascal’s wager is that you can’t really choose to believe something – belief is kind of a reaction when the evidence appears convincing.

      I agree. I didn’t stop believing because of any super convincing Rational Logical arguments from atheists; I just kind of stopped because it no longer felt right. So really, Pascal’s Wager is only an argument for faking belief insofar as it’ll get you into “heaven” in certain theologies.

      1. 1.1.1
        smrnda

        I actually recall when I was young and reading Solomon Grayzel’s History of the Jews that some rabbis were opposed to (at the time) speculative writings about the afterlife since it took the focus off living life ethically on earth, though I never knew what else had emerged as I’d never looked much further.

        And in certain theologies,the Wager probably doesn’t guarantee much, particularly ‘born again’ Christians who place a huge emphasis on some big, emotional conversion experience and who castigate other types of Christians for being too ritualistic or having inauthentic faith.

  2. 2
    researchtobedone

    Occurred to me while reading: the problem with Pascal’s Wager is that there is a near-zero cost to making claims of infinite costs.

    With respect to teaching kids about death, and difficult topics in general, I’m pretty much always for teaching them. I attribute a significant part of my aversion to confrontation to the fact that my parents were careful to never have arguments around me when I was younger. While it was well-intentioned, I don’t think it helped in the end. I think “protecting” kids from learning about difficult subjects almost always means they’ll have shitty immune systems with respect to those subjects later in life.

  3. 3
    Lou Doench

    Dale Mcgowan has great advice about talking death with your kids. (http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3638). One thing that he said (somewhere) is something to the effect that it is in fact easier to talk about death with young kids than it is when they get older.

    1. 3.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      That was a really powerful read. Thank you.

  4. 4
    huntstoddard

    I’m not sure that eternal oblivion will make much more sense to children than punishment. I mean, I just can’t really imagine a meaningful conversation with a five year old about nonexistence. Death is unfortunately one of those things that everyone will have to psychologically deal with in their own way. Perhaps I’m wrong, but if someone is going to believe the insanity of, say, the Christian afterlife, then they’re going to believe it, or not A peremptory lecture on it will neither prevent not prepare one for it. Perhaps the best way to deal with the topic is not to mention it at all. I know, in the present environment where everything “should” be definitively dealt with, that probably sounds like heresy, but it forms my opinion that I hate “Charlotte’s Web” as a children’s book, or Bambi as a movie. Children don’t need death shoved down their throats. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but from experience I know there are some theories of parenting and education that seem to hold that informing children of their eventual demise is of prime importance. And if it is not, that gradual revelation will permanently scar and scare their nascent psyches, as if the notion of death isn’t normally debilitating for anyone seasoned in life. If only we can present death in the correct way to children, it’ll all just be A-OK! Balderdash.

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Just out of curiosity, did you actually read my post? Because I explained how knowing nothing about death but being curious about it allowed me to believe the terrifying crap I heard about it from my Christian peers and the surrounding culture.

      Obviously that’s anecdotal evidence, but I also don’t think I was an extremely unusual child.

      1. 4.1.1
        Hunt

        (That was me, as logged in to yahoo.)

        I guess I’m kind of an obscurantist in this regard, and I’m also against indoctrinating children in any religion or in atheism for that matter. So, (for me) this: “there can’t be hell, because we’re atheists” isn’t acceptable either. It’s possible to guard against ignorance-based terrorizing of children by conveying a sense of skepticism, and pointing out that people believe all manner of absurd things across a broad spectrum. Speaking for myself as anecdote, this is what generally protected me from being terrorized by reports of fire and brimstone. Deciding that it is time for a child to be introduced to the notion of death is a presumption, in my opinion. To me “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bambi,” guinea pigs as pets (5 yr lifespan) are all different forms of sadism, because that was my experience.

        1. 4.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Well, I intentionally did not prescribe a particular way of talking to children about death. It really could be as simple as, “Grandma isn’t with us anymore because when people get very old, their bodies stop working and they die. Nobody really knows what happens then.” That last part would emphasize that if someone starts trying to tell you about hell, well, they don’t know either.

          And it’s not like any child isn’t going to know that death is a thing. If they don’t have pets, they’ll see wild animals die. They may know a friend or neighbor or teacher or other community member who passed away. They’ll see plants die. Kids are going to ask questions about these things because (most) kids are curious. The answer should not be an attempt to dodge the question or introduce terrifying theologies.

          1. Hunt

            I agree with all that. Children understand what death is, but I don’t think they usually conceive of their own death. I’m guessing that would be very rare. Actually, most, or let’s say “many” people remain in denial of mortality for most of their lives in a kind of strange doublethink way.

  5. 5
    natalierooke

    Excellent post, I feel like I need to respond!

    I’m 25, atheist, born to a Christian mother who believes that the Christian religion is the ‘truth’, as she explains. I believe that nobody knows the truth. We’ve only really spent the last century, a tiny blip in time, constructing a plausible explanation for existence as an alternative to putting our fears and worries to rest in the form of a higher power or creator. It’s fascinating; all organised religions formed around about the same time, when people needed something to create order and society in a primitive world, and nothing has really come to fruition since a couple of thousand years ago when a young Jewish fellow broke away and created his own following He was the more recent one, and yet in those years we’ve learned more about the physical world in which we live than ever. (except for the few hundred years of the Dark Ages when purist Christians burned the teachings of the Greeks and Romans and slowed us down; we would be 600 years more technologically advanced than we are now, if it weren’t for religion).

    People seem to need an explanation for why we are here and what is beyond our physical space, and beyond time, because it is difficult for the human brain to fathom anything outside of its own existence. This is the sole reason for all religion.

    When I came to this conclusion I never felt so free.

    This is why I disagree with Pascal’s wager and agree with your comment. My life would have been so limited with a god. So riddled with guilt and fear and the close-mindedness to learn new things.

    I was free of the notion that someone I couldn’t see, feel, hear or understand was watching my every move; free of the expectation that nothing I do in my life matters anyway because I’m going to spend *the rest of eternity* in a really good place or a really bad place (*much* harder to fathom than just dying and that’s it, your cells just stop moving, and without them your consciousness cannot exist)… just free. I suddenly felt compelled to excel at everything I do in my life; Steve Jobs said “everything around us was created by other humans no smarter than you” — this is it. We are all capable, and powerful, and we have created so much in the last blip of time we call centuries, we can do ANYTHING. Your talents are not given to you as a gift by a god; they are *your* talents. You are good at things. And you should not feel guilty if you do something else that isn’t your talent because you prefer it.

    So to answer your title: it’s very important to be honest with children about death. (And Santa. You worked your butt off to get them all those presents, then just give the credit to someone else?!) I don’t have kids yet but when I do, I will tell them straight and logically. Kids are a lot smarter and resilient than adults give them credit for. I envisage telling my children that when you die, it’s because your body has stopped working, all the little cells inside you are done. Imagine if you buried someone and a great tree grew over their remains; the soil is rich and fertilised because nature recycles, we’re all products of something else that once existed here. We’ve all got a certain time alive, and we must protect that life as best we can, so we grow old and don’t die young. That’s why we have hospitals and doctors. But, when a loved one dies, I will tell them (and I thought about this extensively this week as my grandfather died), it means their spirit, their personality, is gone. It’s sad for us who are left behind, but their goodness and what we loved about them will remain in our memory of them. And sometimes, if you miss them and you look up at the sky in the night, and you see a star twinkle, there’s nature and the universe reassuring you they will make something great.

    I’m very interested to know your thoughts on this :)

    All the best,

    Natalie.

  6. 6
    grignon

    Another flaw with the wager is believing in the “correct” god; Accepting the god of Muhammed gets me no cachet in christianville. If you get down to the nitty-gritty of what exactly this rescuing deity requires in return for the golden ticket, it’s really just a Power Ball lottery with every sect selling different winning numbers. You’re just as well off playing the chance that there’s a postmortem state uninfluenced by any belief or action of your existence.

    When my kids asked “What happens when you die?” I answered ‘Don’t know-never talked to anyone after they died. But I think it’s like when you have a dreamless sleep, where you lay down and then the alarm wakes you up. The only reason you know time has passed is the face of the clock. When you die, the alarm never rings.

    1. 6.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      How did your kids respond?

      With regards to that criticism of Pascal’s Wager, some theists seem to believe that it doesn’t really matter which god you believe in; it’s all a manifestation of the same thing and what really matters is that you’re not an atheist. Obviously, that’s not the view taken by extremists of any religion, but that’s probably how they’d respond to that claim. (For obvious reasons I disagree.)

      1. 6.1.1
        grignon

        Yeah, the stoner god: “hey man, whatever!” I was going to use that as my example.

        I realized over time that the question young children are really asking is “What happens to ME if/when YOU die?”
        So I told them about insurance, reminded them of all their loving aunts and uncles, recalled my own reaction to my father’s death and told them everything will be ok in the end.

        Both my sons (now teens) are baptized RCC. Their mom is a holiday catholic. They’re quasi-theists and I don’t argue apologetics with them. I do go on the occasional rant at the most egregious believer stupidities and they seem to see the irrationality of the whole deity meme.

  7. 7
    Rowan vet-tech

    I managed to learn about death, thanks to the Discovery channel, when I was 3 or 4. I understood at that age that someday I would *die*, and because I wasn’t any religion at that point, I thought it meant I simply stopped. Nothing. The end. Do not pass Go. That didn’t bother me consciously at that age, but it sure had a huge impact on my dreams.

    Every night, from age 4 to age 10, I would have the same nightmare. I would be playing tag with my family and I was ‘it’. When I tagged someone, they would collapse into a pile of bones. Once I tagged them all, they reanimated as skeletons and killed me.

    When I was old enough to understand the concept of hell, as was taught to me in sunday school, things just became worse. Not only was I now old enough (6) to really contemplate non-existence, but now I had the choice of non-existence or being lit on fire for ever. I was never able to actually imagine heaven existing. I used to cry myself to sleep while praying for forgiveness for anything I might have possibly done to make God angry.

    1. 7.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I’m so sorry. That must’ve been terrifying. :(

  8. 8
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Well, I talk with my kids about death and no, I’m not going to pretend that the religious have any point about the afterlife. There’s zero indication about that, it’s not like this is something with equally likely possibilities.
    But we talked about stardust. That’s we’re all made from stardust and that we’ll go on to be something else. We used to be a star, we used to be plants and animals and other people.
    We talk about my dead grandpa, because my oldest was already old enough to realize what it meant that he was dead and we talk about the fact that he’s not totally gone because we remember him and have pictures and talk about him.

  9. 9
    Skeptic Dude

    I simply don’t understand HOW anyone can expect a child over the age of 5 to not have thoughts about death in one form or another. Our relationship to death is a lifelong existential issue we have to face, perhaps THE existential issue. It won’t do to use condescending little platitudes with kids, I say its better to just tell them the truth (before they get brainwashed by their surrounding culture) and let them have plenty of time on their own to think about it. Of course many, maybe most people go through their entire lives without ever really reckoning with the implications of death so it should come to no surprise that for many, denial is the reflexive option.

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