“At least he’s so young”

One of my Black Friday (yes, I shop Black Friday and I refuse to feel any shame about it) stops is always JoAnn Fabrics. Yesterday, I ran into a customer, who asked about Teddy, which led to the lady at the cutting counter asking about his transplant, and a longish conversation about young children with heavy medical experiences. She said the same thing I’ve heard numerous times in the past – “it’s a good thing he’s so young and won’t be affected by all this.”

I understand the sentiment. The person who says this is invariably trying to find a silver lining, and also believes that a child truly won’t be affected by – or remember – their early life experiences. However, I really fail to find any truth or comfort behind those words.

To start with, I’m not sure there’s really EVER a good time for a child to be diagnosed with an illness or disease that is life-altering, life-limiting, and/or life-threatening. As with most largely negative life experiences a child may face, there are pros and cons to it happening at any age – but there’s really not any age when these experiences are ideal.

Quite a few people have expressed to me that they think it’s better for Teddy that he’s just always been this way – he doesn’t know any different. However, I really can’t get on board with this being one for the “pro” column. He’s never known a life that didn’t involve lots of people hurting him, lots of doctors, lots of hospitals, lots of nausea, being fed through a tube, and unnatural holes in his body… remind me of how this is an awesome thing?

Many people believe that babies don’t have working memories. But science is showing that this just isn’t true – and the experiences of thousands of medical-needs babies are certainly showing that it’s not true, as well. (How can you say he doesn’t have any memory, when he started having negative reactions to people in the green OR scrubs from a pretty early age – even when those people were people he knew and liked?)

I personally think it would be so hard to be experiencing things that are scary and painful and that capitalize on our most basic fears – being held down and being hurt – when you lack the ability to communicate about it. It seems like that would be worse than being able to verbalize your fears and your dislike of the situation, and being old enough to understand what is happening, why, and that it will all be over soon. In fact, I wonder if sometimes adults tell ourselves that it’s easier to deal with bad stuff when you’re a baby or toddler simply because babies and toddlers can’t tell us how they feel about it. Sure, they cry. But they don’t ask questions and they don’t tell us in plain words how much they hate it.

People also tend to believe that early life experiences are not remembered by – and do not affect – children when they’re older. I will agree that people can’t generally remember with any detail events that happened when they were just babies or toddlers. I don’t agree that those early experiences do not affect their lives. I’m not going to go as far as some (like our President) and claim that infancy is some sort of critical window that determines the course of a child’s life, since that position is not supported by the current body of knowledge of neuroscience, but experiences in infancy certainly play a role in forming the person we are to become. (here is an interesting article on the subject.)

I think we step into dangerous waters when we say that infancy – or toddlerhood – or preschool – or grade school – or high school – is a “better” time than any other time in childhood to have intense medical experiences, to wrestle with mortality and life-threatening diagnoses. There is no good time.


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