No matter how prepared you think you are for the questions your toddler might ask (and the ways in which they might go on to interpret your answer), they’ll always find a way to catch you off guard. The following exchange with our little one began last weekend in the car:
Her: “I read the Beano Annual at Grandtom’s house.” (Grandtom is what she calls Ruth‘s father – her maternal grandfather.)
Me: “Oh? Did you like it?”
Her: “Yes. Did you have the Beano Annual when you were a little boy?”
Me: “Yes: I would sometimes get one for Christmas when I was little.”
Her: “Who gave it to you?”
Me: “My mummy and daddy did.”
Her: “Your mummy is Nanna Doreen.”
Me: “That’s right.”
Her: “Why haven’t I met your daddy?”
That’s a question that I somehow hadn’t expected to come up so soon. I probably ought to have guessed that it was on its way, given her interest in her extended family lately and how they’re all connected to one another, but I’d somehow assumed that it’d have come up organically at some point or another before her curiosity had made the connection that there was somebody clearly missing: somebody whom she’d heard mentioned but, inexplicably, never met.
Me: “My daddy died, a couple of years before you were born. He was climbing a mountain one day when he had a nasty accident and fell off, and he died.”
Her: “…” (a thoughtful pause)
Me: “Are you okay?”
Her: “How many birthdays did he have?”
Me: “Fifty-four. That’s a bigger number than you can count to, I think!”
Her: “How many birthdays will I have?”
Wow, this went further than I expected, very quickly. Obviously, I want to be open about this: the last thing I want is to introduce a taboo, and I’m a big believer in the idea that on I’m suddenly conscious of the fact that she’s clearly close to a minor existential crisis, having for possibly the first time connected the concepts of age and death. And, of course, I’m trying to translate my thoughts into ideas that a toddler can follow every step of the way. While simultaneously trying to focus on driving a car: she knows how to pick her timing! Okay…
Me: “Nobody knows for sure, but you’ll probably get lots and lots: seventy, eighty, ninety… maybe even a hundred birthdays!”
Her: “Then I’ll have a hundred candles.”
Me: “That’s right. Do you think you could blow out a hundred candles?”
So far, so good. Knowing that, like most toddlers, ours has a tendency to make some new discovery and then sit on it for a day or two before asking a follow-up question, I briefed Ruth and JTA so that they wouldn’t be caught too off-guard when she started telling them, for example, what she’d like for her hundredth birthday or something.
And all was well until yesterday, when we were laying in the garden under the recent glorious sunshine, playing a game that involved rolling along the lawn and back and bumping into one another in the middle, when she stood up and announced that she’d like to play something different.
Her: “Now we’re playing the die game.”
Me: “Oh…kay. How do we play that?”
Her: “We’re going to go up a mountain and then fall off.”
Me: (following her in a stomp around the garden) “Then what do we do?”
Her: “We die.” (mimes falling and then lies very still)
And so that’s how I came to spend an afternoon repeatedly re-enacting the circumstances of my father’s death, complete – later on, after Ruth mentioned the air ambulance that carried his body down from the mountain – with a helicopter recovery portion of the game. I’ve role-played some unusual games over the years, but this one was perhaps the oddest, made stranger by the fact that it was invented by a three year-old.
Toddlers process new information in strange (to adults) ways, sometimes.