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How do I explain to children ages 2 and 4 that their beloved dog has become extremely ill and will probably be euthanized? The dog is 14 but never showed his age until the last six months or so. He developed what I thought was an eye infection and an arthritis-related limp but turned out to be bone cancer. My girls are camping with Daddy and come home this afternoon. They have no idea their dog is sick. The vet has given us pain meds to make him comfortable, but there is nothing more we can do. If the medication can’t control the pain, we must seriously consider putting the dog to sleep to end his suffering. How can I ease the children’s pain?
If the girls love the dog, they will be hurt when he dies. There is simply no way around that. Death is real, and we all experience it.
I encourage you not to lie to your daughters. You may have the best of intentions, but it’s tough to instill truthfulness in children who don’t hear the truth from their parents. Despite your daughters’ young ages, I suggest that you tell them what is happening and help them cope with it.
You need not provide all the details. In fact, keep it simple. Just tell them the dog is very sick and in pain, and that he may die. Answer any questions they may have, again, truthfully but with age-appropriate responses. Yes, the girls will cry. But like children have for many generations before, they will deal with it, probably better than you will.
Allow the girls to spend some quality time with the dog after they get home, and don’t discourage them from lavishing attention on the dog going forward if they wish to show their love. Dogs are pack animals, and they enjoy the affection of their littermates. Hopefully, some family togetherness will ease the pain of all the creatures involved during these difficult last days.
At what age can children clearly distinguish between right and wrong?
Your question sounds simple enough, but the answer gets complicated.
Some jurisdictions hold children at least partially responsible for their actions by the age of 7, though many require children to reach their teen years before they can legally be blamed for anything. The Bible holds that as soon as a child is able to comprehend God’s message, he is responsible for his actions in the eyes of God. While biblical scholars do not all agree on the age of accountability, one common interpretation is adolescence, probably around age 7. Some see the crucial age as a bit younger, some much older.
So from a legal or religious standpoint, the answer to your question is 7 or older.
However, the line between legal accountability and the ability to tell right from wrong is far from clear. Children generally begin to consciously disobey their parents during their second year of life. At that age, children comprehend enough of the world around them to perceive their limitations, then test those limitations. When Dad tells an 18-month-old toddler, “no more cookies” and the child defiantly grabs another cookie and stuffs it in his mouth, he has obviously rebelled against authority.
But does he perceive his action as a choice between right and wrong, or does he simply enjoy the taste of the cookie and want another one? Toddlers tend to think the world revolves around them, and thus they deserve whatever they want. Use caution before ascribing moral judgments to a small child’s disobedience.
To further muddy the waters, at least one academic study used toys and puppets to tell stories and suggested that babies as young as five to 10 months old can tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful characters. But while we can measure conduct, we cannot truly look into the brains of those babies and determine why they chose one over another. Maybe they think helping is right and hindering is wrong. And maybe they like the helpful characters better because they themselves would rather be helped then hindered.
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