For reasons I can’t quite recall, I introduced my kids to the Don McLean song “American Pie” last week. My three-year-old son Rafael will start singing it randomly, although his lyrics have been creatively interpreted.
Instead of the original “…and good old boys were drinking whisky and rye, singing ‘This ‘ll be the day that I die…This ‘ll be the day that I die,” Rafael’s version goes:
Little boys, whisky and rye, singing this will be the day that I’m done…This will be the day that I’m done.
At this point, my five-year-old daughter Ayelet will chime in and say, “No Rafael! Die! It goes, ‘this will be the day that I die’!”
I think Rafael’s version is pretty cute, so I quietly try to convince her not to correct him. But there is an interesting subtext – Ayelet seems quite familiar with the concept of dying. We’ve never gone out our way to explicitly tell her about death, but we haven’t tried to hide it from her either. When the topic has come up, we try to simply answer her specific question and move on.
When she has asked us about when we will die, or her grandparents will die, we are always careful to explain that we won’t die until we are old and sick. The idea that people sometimes die in more tragic, unforeseen circumstances isn’t something that we have introduced. But again, we haven’t hidden it either. There have been passing references, such as around the importance of buckling our seatbelts and what could happen if we don’t, but nothing specific.
Ayelet doesn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics of American Pie, but she has clearly managed to pick up some of the undertones. The first day that my son was really in to it, he asked to listen to it while they went to sleep. A few minutes later, Ayelet came out of their room saying the song was making her sad and could we please turn it off!
I figured that would be it for the song, but the next day Ayelet asked to hear it again. Then a day or two later, while she was singing it to herself, she turned me and said, “Is that a real song?”
Ayelet has been quite interested lately about whether stories are “real” or “made up.” She will often point out that a story isn’t real because it features a talking animal, and animals can’t talk. Most of the stories kids read are made up, so perhaps the “real” ones hold particular interest.
I thought about her question for a minute, and then decided to stick with our general policy of always answering the question. “Yes, it’s real,” I said. “It’s about three musicians who died in a plane crash.”
I then recounted the story of how Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash in the 1950s. She had a lot of questions. Why did the plane crash? Because of a snow storm. Why were they on the plane? They were cold and didn’t want to ride the bus. Why didn’t they want to ride the bus? Because the heater was broken. And so on.
I did try to emphasize particular points that I wanted to make sure didn’t scare her in the wrong way. That the plane was a very small plane, not like the big jets we fly on today. That there was a snow storm, and this was a long time ago, before even I was born, and big planes today can safely fly in storms like that.
I then tried to explain more about what some of the verses meant. We still receive a real printed newspaper on the weekends, so we talked about “February made me shiver, with each paper I’d deliver. Bad news on the doorstep…” and how it was about him delivering the newspapers with the story of the plane crash.
So far, she hasn’t become scared or frightened. She likes singing the song, and she likes playing with the toy lego airplane we built this afternoon. As kids do, she’s just taking it in.
So far, we are very lucky. Death remains a very remote concept for Ayelet, so she is able to approach it at her own pace.
It’s not a kids song, but I’m glad she’s learning it.