“Why do we all have to die?”

Just some dust, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Just some dust, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Children and adolescents have many – often existential – questions. Responding with another question is a good way to help them find their own answers. Exchanging ideas and views with others promotes reasoning skills and social development.

“Why do we all have to die?”

“Imagine what it would be like if we lived forever. What would that mean?”

“It would mean just living day by day, with no goals – since it wouldn’t matter whether we tackled a task today, or tomorrow, or sometime in the more distant future.”

This exchange took place in a class on “Life Skills and Meeting Life’s Challenges,” focusing specifically on the topic of death and dying. One of the girls in the class had lost her grandmother only a few weeks earlier, and she wanted to talk about it.

The discussion centered around questions that have no “correct” answer – questions that elicit different responses, depending on your philosophical, religious or scientific perspective. Mortality is a topic that human beings have struggled with for thousands of years, and it continues to occupy our greatest thinkers.

We should encourage children, too, to engage in creative thinking. During that class discussion, the students tried to imagine what immortality would mean, an exercise that forced them to reflect on the limitations of human existence. They came to a variety of interesting conclusions, but also raised new questions: Do people reach a point where they feel that they have lived “long enough,” when they’re old and have had enough of life? What would it mean if we didn’t evolve and change, if our bodies, our appearance, our minds remained always the same, and forever young? Would we be able to handle that?

As we talked about these questions, we worked together to find answers. It was an inspiring discussion that led us to think about the vital role goals play in our lives, and the importance of engaging in activities we consider meaningful – in short, the importance of finding our “purpose.” But how?

Once again, these questions raised still more questions: How do people find out where their potential lies, where their talents are, what they enjoy doing? What is important to us in life? Where would we be without the people to whom we feel deeply connected?

This dialogue-based approach, which doesn’t simply provide answers, but instead encourages young people to seek answers of their own, results in what we call co-constructions, since learning takes place through cooperation among students, with input from their teachers. The students learn to reflect on important questions; they learn the skills they need to manage life’s challenges; and they internalize important values.

Eveline von Arx, an expert in the field of education, has spent many years counseling adolescents.