It was about nine o’clock at night, and we were packing all the kids into the minivan after a long evening at an outdoor party. Sleepy and comfortably ensconced in her carseat, my then three-year-old daughter suddenly chirped:
"My daddy died!"
Slightly startled, we assured her that her father was alive, well, and packing up the trunk. Assuming that this was just a weird dream, we didn’t give the statement much thought – until she said it again another day.
For the next three or four months, my daughter, using a matter-of-fact tone, would start discussing her father’s "death" with many different people, including her daycare provider and family friends. Time and time again, people pointed out that her father was perfectly healthy – and often standing right there in the room with her. She acknowledged this, but indicated that she was referring to someone else, not my husband.
And that wasn’t all. As time went on, she added details about "flashing lights" and "sharks." She mentioned nonexistent siblings. And she started saying that her name was "Manakita." Much of the time, these spontaneous comments came when she was in her carseat or when we were putting her to bed.
Eventually, she started talking about her own death. One evening, when I was tucking her in, she said, "When I died, there was a great big giant light." Gesturing toward her nightlight, I said, "Like that?" She then corrected me, "No, a great big GIANT light!" On another night, she told me that she "chose" our family because she "liked the way you were."
I never brought up these topics, but instead waited for her to do so. I also tried to ask open-ended rather than "leading" questions, such as "How did you feel about that?" and "What was that like?" (Counselor training comes in handy sometimes).
At one point, I mentioned all of this to one of my doctoral supervisors, adding that my daughter seemed to be referencing some sort of Japanese name, "Manakita." My supervisor, who happened to be a native Spanish speaker, replied, "Well you know, munequita means 'little doll' in Spanish."
I tend to be fairly skeptical of anything that feels New Age-y or hippie-dippie. At the same time, however, I do try to keep an open mind. After all, most of us can name some experiences or phenomena that defy rational explanation or current scientific understanding.
With that said, I have been intrigued by Carol Bowman’s research on what she calls children’s past life experiences. Bowman argues that each of us has led multiple past lives and that children spontaneously remember these lives – and these memories affect their current lives. As children get older, these memories fade as new life experiences become incorporated.
Since I mainly deal with adults in my professional life, I asked one child psychologist what he thought was going on. His response: "Yeah, kids say some weird stuff, don’t they?" He was reluctant to draw any conclusions about this beyond an active imagination.
An alternative explanation for my daughter’s strange stories may be simply that she got attention from them. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, my daughter has a healthy dose of "middle child syndrome," and she does tend to seize any opportunity to grab the spotlight. She certainly got attention when she started spouting off about death and other lives.
As for the word "munequita" – we live in an area with many Spanish-speaking individuals, and at age three, she did look exactly like a little doll. It's certainly plausible that she heard someone use that word to describe her.
At the same time – where did she get the part about great big giant lights? Death and great big lights do not normally come up on Sesame Street or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
Does your child say "weird stuff?" If so, my best advice to you, as a parent and therapist, is this: don’t flip out. React calmly and without excessive emotion. If you respond with fear or anger, or if you dismiss your child’s words as "silly," your child will learn to hide things from you. And as he or she gets older and approaches the teen years, you do not want that dynamic in place (believe me).
In fact, "don’t flip out" applies regardless of situational specifics. Whether your child is babbling about other lives, or asking about sex, drugs, or other sensitive issues, it’s always best to reply as calmly and unemotionally as possible.
A few days ago, I asked my now five-year-old daughter if she remembered calling herself "Manakita" and talking about a different family. She smiled, rolled her eyes, and said, "That was just a dream!"
Perhaps. But this dream lasted for four months...
By Jenny Douglas Vidas