One evening, Leila asked softly, “Mama, why did you get sick?”
Mama answered, “I don’t know, love.”
“Is it because you’re strong?” Leila mused.
“Maybe.” Mama smiled. “Probably.”
“But why did it have to be you?” Leila pressed.This conversation is an example of the many questions my young children asked when I was diagnosed with cancer. Never ending “big” questions that really had no answers.
It was Christmas Eve, 2018, when I heard the dreaded words: “You have cancer.” My life would never be the same. My kids were 2 and 4, and they were about to witness their mom going through one of the hardest times of their life. But they had zero understanding of what was actually happening, let alone how to deal with all the feelings that came up for them. Frankly, I didn’t either.
It led me on a mission to find children’s books that dealt with sickness, death, and grief.
There weren’t any.
I kept digging and found a couple, but they were abstract and not the kind of books that I felt met kids where they are. The kind that talk directly and honestly to their hearts. So I reached out to friends and colleagues in the children’s publishing industry and was met by a resounding “we make books about fun things,” “it’s too depressing,” or ”it’s too much for kids to think about.”
I was stunned. All I could think about was how our kids do lockdown drills and have to worry about school shootings and being bullied. But it was too much for them to talk about illness or death? I thought about how they are expected to be resilient and strong but weren’t being taught how.
Have you ever noticed how most of the time when a child starts crying or having a strong emotional reaction to something, an adult usually tries to squelch it? When a child is having a “big” feeling— crying, anger, fright, frustration—we often tell them to calm down. It’s the adult who is the uncomfortable one and doesn’t know how to help the child through it, so it becomes overwhelming for the adult and they just want it to stop. The patterns we are teaching our children in having them suppress their emotions do far more harm than good.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people, ages 10 to 24. We talk about mental health all the time, but yet we don’t make it accessible. It’s expensive and there are too few resources for the average family. We don’t require mental health education in schools like we require P.E. Imagine if we made it the norm. Not only would there maybe not be as much of a stigma around it, but we would model that our mental health is just as important as our physical health. We could give our children tools to work through hard times and strategies on how to take care of themselves. We could teach them that having “big” feelings is not only ok, it’s a good thing.
That’s why I wrote Making Happy, my picture book for kids. I found an editor and publishing company that embraced the narrative and wasn’t afraid to center these conversations. I was grateful that in an endless sea of well intentioned “everything is going to be ok,” “be strong,” and “things happen for a reason,” I found a home that saw that we need to do more for our children and not pretend that scary things don’t happen.
I have no problem talking to my kids about what’s happening in the news and in our communities. In fact, I want to be the one having these conversations with them. Guiding them. They are curious, engaged, and so thoughtful. And I am always floored by their insight. I tell them as much as I think they can handle. I remember that each child is different and know that sometimes the most powerful thing you can say to your child is “I’m scared too but we are going to figure it out together.”
I know my kids are going to learn how to read and how to do math. I know they will be taught how light is created and what happened to the dinosaurs. Academically, they will be fine. But will they be emotionally whole? Socially and emotionally capable of dealing with everything coming at them? Will they be resilient and brave? Will they be fierce and capable of sometimes being the only one in a crowd who says something? Will they be able to weather the multitude of storms that will inevitably come their way? This is what I wish most for them. For them to be resilient, full of kindness, love and compassion, and not afraid to stay true.
We all know that emotions don’t go away just because we want them to. My child’s preschool teacher always said to remember “children are not giving you a hard time…they are having a hard time.”
It’s so hard, but staying in the discomfort with your child is sometimes the most powerful thing we can do for them.