“We don’t talk about that here” are limiting words. There’s a gift in difficult topics. I offer you the story of the dead fish.
One morning we entered the classroom to find that the Betta fish that we’d had for about a month had died. The children never paid the sickly fish much attention…until that day. Some of the children were distressed, and others were full of questions. But everyone was interested.
We decided to hold a community meeting (all 23 children, ages four to five and a half) to unpack the children’s thoughts and feelings about the fish’s demise. Within these excerpts from their dialogue are assertions direct from parents or Sunday school. But there are also theories about how death and dying works, some philosophy, and some theology, evidence that young children can and do engage in deep and meaningful dialogue about important matters.
Some topics are particularly difficult for adults but are fertile ground for co-construction and deep discussion for children. We could have simply “disappeared” the dead fish. Considering their lack of engagement with the little guy while it was alive, I rather doubt anyone would have cared. But then we would have missed an opportunity to invite the kind of dialogue that comes out of deep engagement and emotion. Follow the conversation, below, and see if you agree.
AB: I haded a fish, his name was Junior Ray and after my grandparents went in Heaven, my fish went in Heaven.
Teacher: Your fish went in Heaven! Do you think our fish is in Heaven?
Many voices: Yes! No!
GT: His bones are.
HR: My mom says once you bury an animal, then God picks it up from the dirt and then his whole body is just stuck in the dirt, and then when the fish gets to Heaven it gets a whole ‘nother new body. That’s what my mom said.
So what part of him goes up there if it’s not his body?
HR: Well, the old part of like the bones and the skin would just be buried in the dirt, and then…he goes up in Heaven and gets a whole new body. Like the same kind of body, except never dying again.
Can you only die once? (Yes)
BS: One day I saw a dead kind of bird…and we took good care of it…and he didn’t come alive again.
Are you saying that our fish will not get a new body?
HR: He will get a new body. Because God can do a lot of things that we can’t do.
BeS: Well, your bones go to Heaven and your skin doesn’t.
GT: When any kind of animal dies they get buried and their spirits go up to Heaven.
So what part gets buried then?
GT: Their body and their spirit goes up.
What is the spirit of a fish like?
GT: It’s a fish, except it’s invisible and it’s not a real fish.
So let me ask you this. Is our fish’s spirit already up in Heaven?
GT: It might take a long time to go up to Heaven.
HR: No. No. God always has a way for something good.
What way would God have to make this good?
HR: Well, God’s arms are so large He can lift the fish up to Heaven.
ML: Did you know that my Daddy knows everything in the whole wide world that some people don’t know, even my friend Amory, that is not in this class. He didn’t read the Bible, he just knows that if you go up to Heaven, your skin just lays on the floor, and my dog already died.
Did his skin lie on the floor?
ML: No. He was just gone. To Heaven.
SK: You know what? When my fish died named Goldie, I got a new fish on my birthday. Goldie just died and we throwed him in the toilet.
Did his spirit go in the toilet, too?
SK: Yeah. He went to Heaven.
BeS: No. No. [The toilet] leads to the ocean.
ML: No, that leads to the sewer. Then he’ll get eaten by a crocodile.
HG: No, he’ll come out into the wild world around us.
Can we watch the fish go into Heaven?
KS: God won’t do it if you’re watching.
SH: Yeah. God’s invisible.
GT: He’s giant.
ML: God doesn’t even exist!
EG: God does exist
GT: God is giant, because He’s holding the world in his hands, and the world is really big.
KS: The world comes down with Him to find the fish buried. He takes the fish from the hole…
HR: No, no, K____, that’s not right. We live on a planet called Earth, and God’s holding it, and it can’t be that God lives in outer space. That’s impossible.
KS: Maybe, if God holds the Earth like this, it might fall out of His hands.
The children discuss how they think God positions his hands to hold the Earth.
EG: We never know. I think God lives in Outer Space. God could be invisible.
SK: And what if He lived right over here, and God was walking over the whole world, and He found Heaven. Heaven is a long way,
ML: God would have to just walk and walk and walk one hundred and a gazillion walk times to get to the Earth.
MH: We might seem a little big, but my brother told me that we’re actually very small. The Earth is really small.
CP: No. The world is BIG!
BS: Actually, the sun is bigger than the Earth.
SH: You’ll see if you go into Outer Space. And you’ll see that we are not people. We are sheep. We’re God’s sheep.
GT: Cause He’s watching over like shepherds watch over their sheep.
HG: Do you know persons can be animals?
MH: People are animals.
GT: We’re a type of animal.
AT: Well, how could God go down to get the fish if He is holding the world?
GT: Cause the fish is floating. And then He has magic, and He could make the world float and then He could go down and get the fish.
AT: He could hold the world with one hand and then use the other hand to get the fish. I have one more word to say. If the astronauts go into Space, if he didn’t see God, who would hold the globe?
Child: He’s invisible!
SC: God lives in Heaven.
Not in Space? (No)
GT: Heaven is a type of planet.
BS: God remembers (reminds) me of the invisible cat in Alice in WonderlandWonderland because He’s invisible.
BeS: God is not invisible. He lives far away from Space.
This dialogue was all quite intellectual. But at other times in the day, the children responded to the fish’s death with greater emotion.
SH cried because the fish died with no name.
“I wish I could be in Heaven with the fish.” ML
When AT greeted her mother at carpool time, her first words were, “This was the worst day ever. The fish died.”
Emotion-laden topics like death and controversial ones like theology can be some of the most fertile ground for dialogue, listening and good thinking, precisely because of the affect they inspire. I have long held that there’s a particular reciprocity between emotion and intellect and have known groups of children who first began to engage in cognitive dialogue because the topic inspired emotional engagement. “We don’t talk about that here” are limiting words that I believe should never be used lightly or without considering what might be lost for the sake of maintaining adults’ comfort zones.