When do you learn that dead princesses don’t always wake up?

I have mentioned before on my blog about how my children are obsessed with games involving death and serious injury – pretend death that is, of the kind one always wakes from a la Sleeping Beauty, and imaginary injuries of the sort that can be always fixed with a scrap of fabric and a Fisher Price medical kit.

The injuries aren’t always inflicted on themselves – their dolls and soft toys often fall victim to terrible fates. As do make-believe birds, courtesy of Bob Graham’s wonderful picture book, How to Heal a Broken Wing.

This is a beautiful book about a small boy who notices something that everyone else misses – a bird on the ground with a limp wing dragging by its side. The boy and his mum take the bird home and keep it in a box with a blanket until it is healed. This story almost came to life in our home just the other day.

The girls were busily colouring in and their baby brother was doing his best to tip their textas on the floor and rip their paper when I saw a bird on our alfresco area just near the back door.

‘Come and look!’ I called because the baby especially loves to see birds right up close.

Everyone came running. But as we got a little closer, I couldn’t stop the words, ‘Oh no,’ from escaping. Because the bird was lying on its stomach on the ground, legs splayed out on each side, head slumped forward. Nothing was moving. But it was too late. Everyone had seen it. And the reactions were:

  • From the baby: Screeching delight and shouting ‘bir-bir’ at the top of his voice.
  • From the five year old: Hysterical sobbing and shrieks of ‘Mummy, do something!’
  • From the three year old: After careful analysis, the calm enquiry, ‘Has it died?’

What struck me was the difference in attitudes between the two girls. It was clear that, even though they play games that involve the ‘death’ of a doll or themselves, this was the first time that my oldest daughter had come close to seeing what death might really be. It was also clear that my middle daughter still thought death was something transient, mildly interesting and not something which yet touched her emotions.

This was made even more apparent by her next words, which were, ‘Mummy, you need to get a box and a blanket.’  Because just like in How to Heal a Broken Wing, if we were able to put the bird in the box with the blanket, she thought everything would be made right.

By this time I could see that the bird was still breathing so I did get a box and a blanket. But the baby had worked himself up into such a state of excitement at his proximity to a bird that he began to pound the glass door with both hands, making so much noise that he startled the bird into consciousness and it picked itself up and flew away.

I didn’t see whether or not it cleared the fence. I told my oldest daughter that it had. And then my middle daughter said, ‘You fixed it Mummy,’ because that is what mummies do, in life and in books, and I wondered if there were any children’s books out there where the mummies can’t fix everything and what is the right age to begin to read those stories. When do you begin to trade innocence for knowledge?

5 comments

  1. Great post Tash, as always. I don’t think there are any right or wrong answers for that one, bar those that the kids themselves will give you (as though I have any personal knowledge on the subject ^^)

    Completely off topic – Our poetry teacher asked us today to list things that could be dropped from the unit Poetry 210. I put down “The unit as a whole” and cited our “previous tutor” as having down such a good job that the unit this year was pretty much revision =)

    • Hi Nick, sometimes the best parenting advice comes from those like you who aren’t yet parents. And thanks for the vote of confidence re tutoring although I’m sorry it sounds like your poetry unit didn’t meet expectations. I’m teaching a Professional Writing unit next semester – Writing Deception and Authenticity or something like that – which sounds a bit like I’m teaching students to lie, although if they’re fiction writers, they should already be pretty good at that!

      • Just read the blurb on that unit and I think I’ll be giving that a miss. Forced down enough ethics and legalities in Creative & Pro Writing last year. You’re no longer doing… Experimental Writing, was it?

  2. Trin

    Love this post. It was only three weeks ago that the same thing happened to us. Unfortunately the bird had not made it. My 7 year old understood this as she has experienced the passing of her dogs whilst 3 & 5 years. So then we had to get an empty easter box to place the bird in, followed by a eulogy, notes and a small token toy. My 4 year old it was his first experience and he wanted to bury one of his favourite soft toys given to him by his Gran. It was only on refusing this I realised how upset he was with the tears and angered that followed about not being able to bury the toy with that bird that died. Three days later he must have been discussing this with his sister to find out that we also die. He came running in quite worried to check this fact, with me replying “yes but usually only when you’re very old”, he accepted this with the reply “yes when you have shapes and bumps on your skin you die”. It took me a minute to realise that he meant wrinkles, with hesitation I said yes expecting him to worry about all the grandparents but he was happy with this. One day later I caught singing loudly a very upbeat tune; “dying bird, dying bird, dying bird dying bird. To answer your question I think 4 is a good age!

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