Throughout this thread I have noticed one common tendency. Many here are claiming that they would choose telling the child about death from a materialist perspective. I think that's a simple way out. I have withheld a detailed review on the subject of the growing child's brain and the differences between our mature understanding of life and the worldview of a child. But in light of the fact that many of us here profess that our course of action would be to behave as though what's good for us would be best for the child's happiness, I will present some details that we seem to be ignoring.
1. Brain development stages:
Unlike our adult brains that stopped growing and undergoing any major changes in our late teens, the child's brain is changing a lot. Child psychologists categorize children into age-groups based on their mental development. This is not something that we can ignore as reason-based thinkers. Children think very differently from us adults, depending on their stage of development.
Three fairly distinct types of thinking based on brain development stages in children have been identified: These are syncretic thinking (2-7 yrs), concrete thinking (7-12 yrs) and abstract thinking (after 12 yrs). We adults are all capable of abstract thought (at least, I hope so), but young kids are not.
Infants and toddlers have no sense of death, and will not be able to understand what it means. Kids that are a little older are aware of death from what they see around them- death of pets, grand-parents, deaths in cartoons etc. What you tell a child about death must depend on what the child can understand. It is inhumane to treat all children as though they are adults. I'm sure that most of us here would agree that young children should be protected against from violence, alcohol, drugs and hardcore pornography, so this idea that they should be treated like adults in all cases is short-sighted.
2. Talking about Death:
Firstly, all the scientific evidence points to talking about death and the illness as being the right way forward. So that is not the issue. The question is when and how. Some sources suggest that we should try to sense if the child is ready to talk about death. Talking about death when the child is not ready for it could make them upset and resentful. Secondly, the age difference is very important. Older children are more likely to want to talk about death.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we should remember that we are talking to a child who has little philosophical or scientific framework to go by. This is not about our own ego, but about comforting the child's.
3. The Ego:
Despite what we know about life and death from our materialistic perspective, we all have an intuitive sense of ego that is non-naturalistic in nature. It is natural to think of this ego surviving after death. Religions have traditionally adapted their tall tales to this natural intuition. Whatever reason-based tales we tell our kids, they must involve an emotional explanation for what happens to the ego. This requires an emotional treatment of what ego and consciousness implies, because there isn't a scientific definition of ego that a child can understand.
Our behaviors are very important in such cases, because children sense that something is wrong and they may blame themselves for causing our unhappiness. It is very important to let the child know that they are not responsible. There are situations where the children feel so guilty that they feel they must seek permission from their parents or loved ones before dying. They feel like they are letting them down. This must be avoided at all costs. This and related-concerns are emotional in nature, and are very important in comforting a dying child.
5. Our Delusions:
The fact that we are rational thinkers actually prevents us from understanding the intricacies of the situation. This is borne out by the fact that religious people are more likely
to talk to their children about death in such cases. It's easy to say now that we will be totally up-front with the kid about his/her death, but this is not borne out by the evidence.
Much of a child's conception of death is related to separation from loved ones. This derives from what I stated about the ego in point 3. It is very important for a child to know that he/she will not be alone when dying. Of course, we all know that we all die alone, but the emotional requirement is still there. When it comes down to it, even most rational thinkers would like to die in the company of loved ones. It is important to make the child know that we will be there with them till the end. What we tell them about what happens afterward is what most of the discussion on this thread has been about. I feel that this part requires careful and individual attention. What we tell the child about what happens after death must depend on the child. Even if we can make a child comprehend what it means for the ego to cease to exist, ideas about separation form loved ones will have to be dealt with. As rationalists we tend to think that the materialistic explanation should suffice. This is because we have spent time accepting this fact as adults. It is a mistake to think that simply telling a child that we just stop existing when we die can make the child feel fine about the anticipation of loss and separation that one feels at the thought of death.
Carl Sagan's vision could provide a sufficiently emotionally-fulfilling account to relieve a child's sense of loss and separation. But there is no doubt that religions have an edge over us on this point. To deny this is to simply be dogmatic. It's interesting that Daniel Dennett has made this exact point before.
7. Life Experiences:
Much of the care of terminally-ill children focuses on giving them a lifetime of experiences. There is an important reason for this.
As adults, we get progressively more prepared to die as we got older and our dreams are fulfilled or discarded as they are replaced with other life goals and achievements. There is a reason why Pete Singer talks about the capacity for foresight, goals and expectations as one of the key differences between persons and animals. We adults have an innate understanding of the idea of experiencing a fulfilling life. This is why it is much more painful when a person between, say, 5 and 25 years old dies, as opposed to the very old (who have already had much life-experience). We undergo much sadness when a baby dies because of a different reason- the evolution-driven emotional reason that makes us respond to babies with a protective instinct.
So what this means is that when a young person is terminally ill, much of the response must focus on granting to the child as much experience as possible. This is why there are many foundations and groups that grant wishes to terminally-ill children. This is why we must use science to make the lives of these children as much pleasurable as possible. This is why we must extend over the reason-based explanations for death and life, and enter into an emotional conversation with the child.