When my son scraped his knee today, he told me proudly that he had an owie and “the doctor would fix it.” I reassured him that we wouldn’t need a doctor to fix his boo-boo because owies happen to everybody. He seemed concerned for a moment and then asked me the big question: “Do owies always get better?” Whoa. I am not ready for this kind of existential question from my barely-three-year-old! Doing my best to be gentle and use concepts he already understands, I tried to explain that sometimes we don’t get better from our injuries. “And if we don’t get better, do we go bye-bye?”
Slow down, kid. I’m not ready to delve into that strange toddler obsession with death just yet! If your kid hasn’t gotten there yet, they will - all kids do. At some point or another, they ask questions about death and dying. It seems like they’ll never stop asking these really uncomfortable questions. Why is this fixation on death so common among toddlers?
My toddler is just over three years old, but some of his friends are solidly into their fourth year. Let me tell you, there are some huge differences between a three-year-old and a four-year-old. Sure, they might both love Paw Patrol and Batman, but my son’s friend Bryce* is far more articulate than Shepard. Bryce has a stronger sense of cause and effect, timelines, and imagining future possibilities. It turns out, child developmental psychologists have pinpointed a few major changes that happen at age four. Even at only three years old, preschoolers are going to ask the eternal question: “Why?” And it’s only a matter of time before these little kids start asking “why” about death.
Dr. Sally Beville Hunter, Ph.D., explains that older toddlers with neurotypical development establish a solid grasp of the main component concepts of death. These subconcepts are non-functionality, universality, irreversibility, and inevitability.
Put in simple terms, non-functionality is the notion that death causes the body to stop working as it should. This would explain why my son connected “really big owies” to “going bye-bye”.
Universality, of course, is the mind’s way of understanding the common experience of life and death. Everyone who is alive today was born - and eventually, we will all die. The idea that death happens to everyone is only something to fear if we perceive it that way. It’s possible for our toddlers to sense that death is just another part of life: the end.
Irreversibility is the sub-concept that explains my toddler’s question about injuries getting better. His knee will be back to normal in a few days - but he’s starting to understand that some “owies” aren’t so easy to overcome. Maybe he understands this more acutely because his grandfather, his favorite person in the whole wide world, suffered a broken leg this winter. Grandpa wasn’t able to walk for a few months - and even when he could walk again, his leg looked a lot different than it used to. Maybe Shep thinks it will never look the same way it did before the break?
Inevitability ties in closely with universality; both are absolutes. Because death happens to everyone, it logically follows that death is not something we can escape. Even young toddlers can grasp this cycle of life ending in something as simple as the changing of the seasons. Watching flowers grow, bloom, and then wither as the weather changes is an unstoppable force of nature - just like death itself.
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill and bring up these huge existential questions - trust me, I’m not trying to send you into a mid-life crisis tailspin! Instead, I hope you can take heart in knowing your toddler isn’t alone in their obsession with death. In fact, typical neurological and psychological development means these questions about dying are just as inevitable as death itself.