At times, I wish parenting came with a manual. About a month ago, I was out running errands with the kids and as we pulled up to a stoplight, my middle daughter noticed a homeless man panhandling on the median. “Dad, what does his sign mean by ‘anything helps?'” “Dad, why is that man homeless? Doesn’t everyone have a home?”
Last week, my youngest daughter and I were talking about our pets and asked where “Kota” was. Dakota was one of our dogs that we needed to put down back in July this year due to a recurrence of an aggressive form of cancer. I gently told her (as I have many times before), that Dakota was sick and is now in heaven. My middle daughter overheard us talking and interjected very matter of fact, “Dad, Dakota was sick with cancer,” the last syllables rolling off her tongue like stale wisps of cigarette smoke.
It bothered me that I couldn’t adequately explain to my daughter why that man was homeless. Obviously, I don’t know the man’s situation and wasn’t about to speculate with my six year old why he was in his present situation.Did he lose his job? Get divorced? Does he have family that know he is panhandling? If so, do they even care?
In regards to Dakota, my wife and I were up front with our older kids on what was happening with her and what would happen to her. We weren’t going to sugarcoat things and tell them she was just “going to sleep” at the vet’s office. We kept the conversations age appropriate on her illness and that euthanizing her was relieving her of her pain and suffering. Still, it grieves me that my 1st grader knows what cancer is. Her biggest concerns at this point in her life should be doing her best in school and being a good friend, not worried about some insidious disease that took her dog in the prime of her life.
Truthfully, I hate these conversations. There’s a great privilege that our kids look to us for answers to their questions, even when they are challenging. Yet, balancing that privilege with attempting to protect their innocence feels like a Sisyphean task: How much is “too much?” What is the “right” age to share certain information?
As adults, we know that life sucks and is oftentimes difficult. There’s a reason we have grown-up coloring books and the phrase, “adulting is hard.”
I didn’t necessarily have an answer for my daughter regarding the homeless man last month. I don’t have one now. At times when words fail, the silence will have to suffice…at least for the time being.