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Children construct knowledge about death. They actively ask questions, they observe events and behaviors around them, they read books and watch films.
By the age of six, most children seem to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of death, according to a recent review of the research.
This is earlier than once thought: the famous early researcher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) proposed that children could not understand death until about the age of 10. He based this notion on the idea that to understand death, children first need to understand bodily systems and how they can come to an end.
But as more people considered children’s understanding of death, the narrow focus on physicality was broadened. In the 1990s, four components of death were proposed, some of which children can start to understand much earlier, from the age of five: (1) the idea that all things die, (2) the idea that death is final and irreversible, (3) the idea that death means the end of all biological and psychological processes, and (4) the idea that death has many different causes.
Of course, studying children’s understanding of death, particularly the impact of losing a loved one, presents ethical challenges. Grieving children deserve privacy.
Children construct knowledge, rather than just learn things. They actively ask questions, they observe events and behaviors around them, they read books and watch films. Out of all this, they establish an understanding.
Parents report that children as young as three years ask questions about death, particularly after a death in the family; for example, “What happens to people when they die?” Children also frequently ask what causes death. Culture shapes how openly parents discuss death with their children. In many Western societies, parents are more reticent to talk about the subject with young children, in the interest of shielding them from difficult truths. That, of course, does not discourage many children from asking.
Books and films
Researchers have examined how death is depicted in children’s books and films. One study in 2014 looked at how frequently death is portrayed in books that parents said were their children’s favourites, as well as books that had won the American Caldecott Medal, an award for distinguished picture books. Only 3% depicted death. In contrast 75% of animated children’s films contain at least one death, though many are not depicted explicitly.
Researchers have also looked at books designed for bereaved children. Books from Western countries are more likely to depict spiritual aspects of death than books from East Asian countries.
The Mexican celebration Día de Muertos, brought to a global audience in the animated film Coco, is an annual celebration of deceased relatives. Families create ofrendas (altars) for dead relatives and place food there. Researchers have asked children what they make of this. Most recount that their dead relatives come to visit and eat the food laid out, even though at the same time they understand that death is irreversible and that the ability to eat stops after death. Thus children can hold different narratives in their heads at the same time.
Combining physical and spiritual narratives
Children can form an understanding of the physical aspects of death very early. In one study, three– to five-year olds were given a lesson on the body and its systems. These children formed a deeper understanding of the causes of death than children who did not receive the lesson.
At the same time, children can also form a spiritual understanding of death. Indeed, whilst most children’s questions to parents are about biological aspects of death, most parents’ responses refer to spiritual elements. For example, if a child asks, “What happens to people when they die?” a parent might say “Your body stops working”, but many will say instead, “You go to heaven.” This may be motivated by the desire to protect the child from the finality of death.
Physical and spiritual understandings can be blended by children without a sense of contradiction, as in Mexican children’s understanding of Día de Muertos. Research suggests that a biological understanding often precedes a spiritual understanding, with the former moderating the latter.
How to tackle the subject of death with children
In research on children not experiencing a bereavement, a greater biological understanding of death has been found to correlate with lower anxiety about death.
Fear and anxiety make it more difficult for bereaved children to reason about death. In this case, open communication with parents has found to support the child’s ability to cope. People who recalled their parents being open to talking about death reported better coping with death in childhood, which in turn was associated with better coping in adulthood. Therefore, parent-child conversations about death are important.
Menendez D, Hernandez IG & Rosengren KS (2020), Children’s emerging understanding of death, Child Development Perspectives