Brian Kaller has a fascinating and lovely essay about talking to his daughter about things that aren’t real, or aren’t here now. He begins from the point of Santa Claus, but the essay is a brilliant meditation on how a parent can talk to their children about the losses in the natural world in an age-appropriate way that doesn’t terrify them.
Since she was a baby, almost every night, I told her stories about the natural world that existed until recently – trees so large many men could not form a chain around them, sloths that could look in her second-story window, beavers the size of cars and dire wolves like fairy-tale villains.
All those were in the now-USA, but these islands used to have the Irish elk, whose four-metre antlers negotiated the great forests here. In Australia she knows there were kangaroos taller than men and thylacines – giant marsupial predators – like wolves with baby pouches and tiger stripes. In New Zealand, she knows – the one place where birds took over from dinosaurs rather than mammals – birds the size of cattle ran from Haast’s Eagles that hunted like airborne tigers. I tell her, at bedtime, how Scotland and Missouri and China all looked like the Serengeti or the Amazon – and except for some people, they still would.
I caution her not to bring this up with the other children at school, so she is not ostracised. Few people I know have even heard of such animals, or associate them somehow with dinosaurs. But they existed only a short time ago – the last mammoths coexisted with the first pyramids, and the last thylacine with the first televisions.
I brought her up with those stories so that she would be one of the few who saw the army of clamouring ghosts around us, who recognise the missing pieces of the world. This is a lot to weigh on a child, of course, so I introduced this slowly, as you do when talking about death and sex, and balanced those stories with that of the little victories – for example, the one man who brought the black robin back to life from the edge, or the few who saved what she calls “parrot-bunnies” in New Zealand. I’ve told her stories of people around the world who are rescuing pieces of the World Gone By, and she wants to be one of them – for Christmas, she asked to adopt an Amur leopard.
So we incorporate that knowledge into what we read – I explain that the oldest story, Gilgamesh, began with the felling of the great trees, and that the land turned to desert. When she heard the story of Noah, she understood that floods happen in lands where the trees are cleared away, as happened here in Ireland. When we read the story of Samson, she instantly saw what most children would not – that he lived in the desert left by Gilgamesh’s people, and fought an animal that was endangered even then, and extinct in that part of the world now.
In the case of the Mabinogi or Genesis, the writers might have remembered a time when the landscape looked very different, but recent writers like Tolkien, and the vast shelves of fantasy he inspired, rejuvenated the elements of those myths for later generations.
When we read The Hobbit, she instantly recognised dire wolves and Haast’s Eagles, even though Tolkien didn’t call them that. She understands that elves and dwarves and orcs were not exactly real, but there were many different kinds of humans once; Neanderthals were not as small as Tolkien’s dwarves but shorter and tougher than we are. There were humans who seem to have been faster than we are, or had bigger brains, or tiny bodies. I want her to know enough about the World Gone By to see its traces in folk memories around the world.
Santa isn’t a part of my children’s childhoods, for obvious reasons, and even the other imaginary bits open to Jewish families are handled pretty lightly here – we don’t have visits from the tooth fairy, but the tooth wombat ;-). What is a part of them is the delicate dance between things that are too sad for small children to bear and enough truth for children to grow. That question – how do we speak of these things, dole out losses and gains and honesty to our kids in ways that don’t leave them broken, but strong enough for more truth as they get bigger is something most parents have to figure out for themselves, and it is a very delicate dance. I really like what Kaller offers as a frame, here.
How have you talked with your children about the world of lost things that they live in?