The How and Why of Reading Obituaries to a Toddler

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My daughter and I embrace life every day. We read the obituaries together.

Lunch and dinner are times for family members to give each other their undivided attention (between bites). Breakfast is a different matter. I read the newspaper, a practice I eventually want my daughter to copy.

It turns out dead people are highly educational. I started doing this around my daughter’s fourth birthday, but I bet some astute three-year-olds can handle it.

Name — Ponder the person’s name. If you’ve had more than one child, the older child may be familiar with naming babies. Take note of names you haven’t heard before. Explain how names don’t always denote gender. Here’s a real example from last week:

“This person’s name was Shirley. Is that a boy or girl name? But the middle name is Wayne. Do you still think the person was a woman? There are a lot of names that both boys and girls use. We don’t name boys Shirley today, but a long time ago parents did.”

Sense of Time — When reading the date of death, explain how many days ago that was. It’s usually just 3 to 5 days prior. Reinforce your child’s sense of the passage of time.

“This person died on the 12th. That was four days ago on Saturday. Do you remember what you were doing that day? That’s right, we were at the fair.”

Geography — Reinforce a sense of spatial relationships by emphasizing the names of cities, high schools and universities mentioned. Explain in what cities the schools are located. This works best for local cities for which your child knows the names. You could keep a map handy for far away places.

“Wow, this man was born in Kansas. That’s far away in the middle of the USA.”

Education — When a college graduate’s degree is mentioned, explain what the person studied. It’s never too early to establish higher education as part of the normal path of a person rather than something extra.

Military Service — If you’re a military family or have friends serving, you’ll appreciate reciting a person’s service. If not….

“You know how two people can sometimes fight with each other? That’s bad, right? Well, whole countries sometimes fight too. A long time ago there was a big fight called World War II and this man helped the USA when other countries were being mean.”

Before and After — Read the list of survivors and family members who preceded the person in death, and mention the memorial services. It reinforces the simple reality surrounding death. People will go before you and you will leave people behind. It’s kind of boring though, so I only read it for the first couple obituaries every morning.

Biography — This is the good stuff. People have interesting jobs. Explain them. Forest ecologist. Paint factory owner. Salesman. Technical writer. Artist.

People have great hobbies and interests too. Explain them. Gardening. Camping. Fishing. Gold panning. Model railroads. Huckleberry pie!

Follow a person from their youth to old age, providing a snapshot for your child of the full progression of a lifetime. And if the person died young, let your child know that too.

“Do you think the person lived a good life? Did he do a lot of things he enjoyed? Did he learn a lot of stuff? Did he help people? He had lots of family and friends, didn’t he? I bet his friends are glad they had the chance to know him. What do you want to do with your life?”

(Sure, your kid probably wants the same job as Mom or Dad, but it’s fun to explore the issue. Get ‘em thinking.)

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6 Responses to “The How and Why of Reading Obituaries to a Toddler”

  1. Jenni says:

    What? Hide the comics?!?!

    Okay, now that I have picked myself up and read on, I do totally agree with you (except the comics part).

    My favorite memories of childhood are those mornings that my dad and I read the paper together. We were the early risers and I always knew when it was okay to get out of bed because I heard my dad go out, get the paper, and start rustling the pages. That was my cue to come out. I don’t think I ever “got” the jokes in the comics, but it was time spent together.

    We spent many mornings reading the paper together. Although he never read the obituaries with me, I do completely agree with you in the practice.

    September 9th, 2008 at 8:36 am

  2. nrbp says:

    I would hide the comics too, but my husband doesn’t and the kids love them (even, like, Prince Valiant and thatsuch).

    I’ve always enjoyed reading the obituaries and sometimes read them out loud to the kids if they mention something I think is interesting (or strange) in them (“Here’s a woman who traveled all over Europe with her husband’s ashes before she died!”). If she’s in the mood, my daughter and I will go through and figure out how old people were when they passed away. And many of the obituaries are a great way to talk about local history and the ways the area has changed in the last century.

    I’d think, by the way, that you and I read the same newspaper, AJ; you don’t have Family Circus in yours?

    September 9th, 2008 at 12:06 pm

  3. Kathleen says:

    How did you explain death to your 4 year old??? We tried with my 3.5 son after he insisted the cemetery by us was leaving boxes (headstones) on the ground (thus littering) and now he is very worried about dying and us dying. Just curious….

    September 10th, 2008 at 12:45 pm

  4. AJ says:

    Good question Kathleen. I’ll write up our situation and make it an open discussion topic for tomorrow.

    September 10th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

  5. Kathleen says:

    Thanks… looking forward to it.

    September 10th, 2008 at 1:52 pm

  6. LiteralDan says:

    This is a really, really great idea… I plan to try it very soon with my 4-year-old son. We haven’t shied away from discussing death so far, just because that would only invite more questions, but this takes it a step farther in a very good way.

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    September 13th, 2008 at 9:45 pm

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