By around age three, the grim handmaiden of self-consciousness— death awareness— begins to make her appearance.
Soon after children become aware of death, it dawns on them that they could die, too.
In another study, researchers interviewed children between the ages of eight and twelve, asking them what they were typically afraid of and worried about. The researchers also interviewed the children’s mothers. Although mothers typically said that their children were more afraid of snakes and poor grades than getting sick or dying, the children themselves said that they were more afraid of illness and death than serpents and bad report cards. It turns out that children are much more troubled about death, and at a much earlier age, than most of us realize.
These diversionary tactics [telling children they won’t die for a long time and getting them to think about other things] are strikingly similar to what happens when adults think about themselves dying. They react by trying to stop thinking about death and distracting themselves with mundane concerns.
“Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being,” wrote the poet William Wordsworth. Such thoughts “often lie too deep for tears.” In this instant, you became fully human.
Given comfort from parents and encouragement from the stories in their culture, children can become expressly confident in their personal inviolability.
In this fashion, over time, being a “good” girl or boy becomes associated with protection and well-being, while being a “bad” girl or boy becomes associated with anxiety and vulnerability. This is why we all need self-esteem— to feel that we are good and valued— and why self-esteem is essential for managing our terror of death.
Children’s burgeoning awareness of death instigates a shift from their parents to their culture.