Teaching Our Children About Absent Things

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?

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I wonder -- how many parents are aware of the affluence of the world today is based on eliminating (exploiting) Earth's resources in a depleting mode? So, how would anyone expect them to pass something they are unaware of, to their children?

When I was seven years old, someone from the local Audubon Society chapter came to talk to my second grade class. That was when I learned of the extinction of the passenger pigeon within the memory of my grandparents. My outrage that people could be the cause of such a tragedy is one of my most vivid early memories. I still powerfully resent being deprived of the sight of millions of migrating passenger pigeons darkening the sky.

Since then, I've come to know the full price being paid for my material comfort and security. With that guilty knowledge, I try to live modestly, but I'll never have the strength to walk away from Omelas for good. The buck stops here, though: I know my own children won't suffer the loss nor increase the debt, because I've ensured I won't have children.

Sharon, please don't mistake me: your devotion to your children, those of other mothers as much as those of your own body, can only be called saintly. As you're raising them, you're setting an example of how to live lightly on the earth. But can you really hope that they and their offspring will all live by your example, unto the seventh generation? And even if they do, they'll never have passenger pigeons, nor whooping cranes nor wild salmon, elephants nor tigers unless by some miracle. Won't they, too, bitterly resent the loss?

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

I'm deeply intrigued - why does the tooth wombat want teeth? And does she/he dig a hole through the side of your house to get them?

By Sarah in Oz (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

"All the better to eat you with, my dear!"

And with that, the toothed wombat jumped out of granny's bed and chased little red riding hood around the little cottage.

(couldn't resist. sorry)

I was just sitting with how to do this this evening. At 5, Eli is just getting to be an age to understand, but how can I explain anything to him when I'm in despair myself? He's starting to notice things and wonder why people hurt each other, why they don't take care of the earth, and what can I say? I feel like it's important to start letting him know that the world has problems and that there are heros who take them on. But the knowledge of what is starting to happen and more than likely to come paralyzes me, it's so sad and filled with suffering.. I don't want him to take that on, but I'm sure he picks up on my emotions, of course. I don't know how to change or make things better, other than hug him and tell him we try to love each other and take care of what we've got. If I tried to tell him tales of what's been already lost, I think I'd break down... It's so ironic that one of the top themes for baby and child items is "safari" and most of those animals are likely to be lost in 50 or so years.

Tell them that many people haven't learnt that money isn't important after you have enough to feed and clothe yourself and occasional treats to enjoy. And they therefore accumulate more and more money which others think means they are better than them and listen to them more.

Tell them that it takes money to be heard when people with money own all the television stations, so these few are the only ones heard widely.

Let them know it isn't a huge wave of masses of evil people causing this but a few sick individuals.

And these few have enough wealth to avoid any consequences for their misdeeds, therefore don't see why they should change.

Most people don't get a voice and the perception is not the reality.

He will be able to change that as he grows up by changing the society he's in. But it takes time.

Just because it looks hopeless (even if it is) doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

Mal - as it happens, I have a bit of an answer for your questions- will the children learn?


Beth Waterhouse spent a good deal of time talking with the children who grew up on the 1st generation of "sustainable" farms here. I was lucky enough to be present at the celebration for the book; which featured - many of the children she'd interviewed, in person. They talked about their plans.

They were an astonishingly impressive group of humans. The major thing they had in common: these 20-somethings were more "mature", in all the best ways, than most 50 year old professors I've ever known. Solid.

Yes; they learn; yes, it changes their lives- and their children's.

Oh, and yeah; my kids are in that book. :-) I recommend it.

so; browsing on a window left unclosed- I tripped on the link in your comment, Mal- and - here I am an hour later. Argh.

I knew the basic reference, but it had been years- and I hadn't remembered it was Le Guin, whom I love dearly; so I had to check in on her; and lo and behold; she has a blog- who knew; and writes, still brilliantly, about once a month...


Greenpa: yeah, UKL has shaped my thinking from my youth -- her adult fiction, I never got into her YA work. As in Omelas, she often presents the human predicament as that of hard choices. If you haven't read them, I especially recommend The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest. Although both were published in the mid-1970s, they're not the least bit dated.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013 #permalink

There is hope. There is always hope. Better even than hope, there is work and service. There are traditions that teach us about our interdependence, responsibility, and need to be of service.

It's with the strength of knowing that together we can make a difference that we can face the unvarnished truth of the vast amount of work that must be done.