How Much Do Children Really Understand?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – how much do children really understand? Things haven’t been the easiest over the past few months for various reasons but trying to gauge just how much Jack really understands or comprehends can be quite difficult.

We’ve had a lot go on in the past year or so – family bereavements plus the deaths of close family friends, my missed miscarriage. In recent weeks we’ve had about five deaths of close family and friends plus my Dad hospitalised with an infection – it has been a very stressful time. This culminated on Saturday morning when I received a panicked call from my Mum telling me she needed to get to the hospital NOW – they wouldn’t tell her why. I got Jack up and dressed and my in laws came and picked him up before I joined my Mum at the hospital. I wasn’t sure on how much Jack had really and truly understood of the situation until that evening when he was home.

He asked what had happened with Grandad (he knew Grandad was in the hospital poorly with an infection) and why I had to rush there. I explained that his heart had become a little poorly (my Dad had suffered a minor cardiac arrest) and we had to go see him at hospital but he was doing much better. The clarity with which he replied shocked me – he seemed to understand just what had happened and how serious the situation was – something I totally didn’t expect.

He’s been talking about life and death a lot recently and he seems to have finally understood about the baby from our missed miscarriage, his Nan and Grandad’s pet dog who was his best friend and my friend’s two cats. He understands they aren’t here anymore and that they’ve passed away but takes comfort in the fact that they’re looking after each other.

how much do children really understand?

We’ve always been keen to shield him from bad news. We don’t mean lie to him – we do tell him what has happened but at a reasonable point in time and not when it could really affect him – his Nan and Grandad’s dog actually passed away at the beginning of the week that he started Reception but we waited until the weekend to tell him as we didn’t want his first memories of school tarnished with sadness. We’ve also had a family bereavement in recent weeks which we’ve waited to tell him about due to Christmas – we are adults and can deal with our emotion accordingly, it wasn’t fair to put that on him just before Christmas and make that a horrible memory for years to come.

But how much do children really understand? I don’t claim to think for Jack or think I know what he’s thinking – or in fact, any child – but we do like to believe in the innocence of youth, don’t we? In fact, they often have much more clarity on certain topics we don’t expect them to and gauge and take in a lot more than we perhaps think they do – just yesterday I had various phone calls with family members about my Dad being steadfastly adamant that he wants to get out of hospital – I didn’t realise Jack had been listening in to these calls but he told me yesterday that when he sees Grandad, he’s going to tell him off and that he needs to stay in the hospital until he’s properly better – I’d never even mentioned anything to him about his Grandad’s behaviour so it showed me just how much he is taking in – how much of the world around him he is beginning to understand.

Whilst it is of course important to preserve our children’s innocence as long as possible, it is clear to see we are not living in an innocent world and our children are clocking onto things a lot more – and a lot earlier – than we would possibly have expected them to. How to deal with this, I don’t know – I guess it is just another path our parenting journey will take us down with lots of twists and turns that we need to figure out for ourselves.

What are your thoughts?

9 thoughts on “How Much Do Children Really Understand?

  1. Children understand a lot more than we think. I used to volunteer in a charity shop a while back and i was talking to the other staff about this drug i had seen on the news. It ruins people’s lives and is apparently more dangerous than heroin. Think it was called krokadil or some name like that. The manager heard me and told me to stop talking about it because kids come in. My response was there is no point trying to shield them from it. Kids need to know about this stuff and be educated about dangerous drugs, the earlier the better. Ignorance is not bliss.

  2. I’m so sorry to hear about everything you’ve been through in the last year. I think children definitely understand more than we think. My niece is 6 and it amazes me sometimes the stuff she comes out with.

    I think it’s important to find a balance between making sure kids are informed, while protecting them from issues they can’t fully understand until they’re older.

  3. I don’t have children, but I can imagine how hard it must be to gauge how much a child actually understands when something is wrong. I know that when I was a child, I was very curious and tried to pry for information if I suspected something was going on.

  4. Children definitely understand more than we think. As a child I had to grow up very quickly and was an adult before I was even a teen. I had to take care of myself in order to survive so I definitely think it depends on mentality. I believe that because of the close family and pet deaths ( I am sorry for all your losses very brave of you to discuss) he has come to understand how final death is x Hope you are ok xx

  5. I highly recommend popping to your local library, they will have story books for children that help in these types of situations and cover themes of loss and bereavement. I used to recommend them when I was a community librarian. Sorry to hear of your losses Gemma

  6. I dont have kids as you know but I have nieces and nephews and I always tell them the truth, I think it is better to be honest from the start and whilst you can shield them from some of the gory details, I think they do understand and possibly accept things a lot better than we do as adults x

  7. I am sorry to hear of the deaths in your close family and friends, children seem to pick up on things a lot these days and the more we can protect the innocence the better but we also dont want to lie to them.

  8. I’m sorry to hear about your losses. This is such a difficult topic to discuss. I do agree with what you’ve said, and how you’ve said it to your little one. It’s hard, on one hand you don’t want to tell them, or feel they might not understand and on the other, they deserve to know. xx

  9. So sorry to hear about your loss. It’s such an interesting thing to think about, Children probably understand a lot more than we think xo

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