Parenting has a tendency to push us out of our comfort zone and one of the things that can feel especially tricky is trying to figure out how to answer the tough questions from our kids. They are trying to understand the world around them and, inevitably, they will take us to topics that can feel awkward or emotionally charged. I find this is usually more for the parent than for the child. My kids are usually fine and I’m the one that feels a little awkward. Am I eating a dead chicken? Did they kill it or did it just die? Is so-and-so dead? Are you going to die? Did he hurt himself on purpose? What are those police officers doing? Why is there an ambulance there? Who were the Nazis? Where do babies come from? Ack!
We have a few “rules” that we follow when our kids bring us these questions and (so far) they’ve guided us well.
We always answer their question. I don’t like leaving my kids’ questions unanswered. I don’t want them to think that there are topics that are off-limits or that they should feel bad or embarrassed about any of the questions that they have. I want them to feel safe and comfortable to come to me when they are older with the “big stuff” and I hope they will if I help them feel safe and comfortable now. It also gives me practice. I know the questions will get harder as they get older and answering questions now (even if I feel awkward) helps me get better and less awkward for the harder ones later. I do think it is okay to defer the question for a very short time frame. If you are out in public or you need a minute to think about how you want to approach a topic, I think that it’s fine to say, “That’s a good question. Can we talk about it when we get home?” (This should not be an avoidance tactic, though. You really should revisit it as soon as possible – ideally within a few hours.) I also think it’s okay to tell your kids “I don’t know” – but only if that is your honest answer.
We answer with an age-appropriate truth. If you start with a lie, it’s super easy to get yourself stuck. If you start with the truth, it won’t lead you astray or make it hard to answer follow-up questions. (This is just good life advice, really.) Telling the truth is actually really simple and easy. The harder part is knowing what is age-appropriate. This is highly variable depending on your child’s actual age and their emotional maturity. The more you answer questions this way, though, the easier it is to know what your child is ready for. The next rule is another thing that we find helpful with knowing what is age-appropriate.
We answer with the shortest answer possible. I used to talk too much when I would get a tough question from my child. I didn’t quite know what to say and I didn’t quite know when to stop. I found that I was often giving way more information than they really needed and I was also adding reassurances for my emotions that they didn’t really have or need either. What I do now is answer only the question that they asked and aim for one sentence or less. One word is even better. This lets my child ask the next question so that they are directing where the conversation goes. It also helps me know when my child has enough information. I stop giving information when they stop asking questions.
We remind them that we can talk about it again. I make sure that they know we can always talk about this more later if they have more questions. No conversation has to be done or over.
So, here is an example. My five-year old overheard some people talking about a girl whose dad had killed her mom. (Kids are always listening!) I tried to scoot her away from the conversation, but I was too late. She heard enough of it and had questions.
- What were they talking about? Oh, a story from the news.
- Do we know them? No.
- What happened to the mom? She died.
- How did she die? Someone hurt her.
- On purpose? Yeah.
- How did they hurt her? They used a gun.
- I don’t like guns. Me either.
- Does she (the girl) miss her mom? Yeah, I think she probably does.
At this point, my daughter stopped, so I asked a couple of questions to make sure there weren’t any loose ends.
- This is a sad story, isn’t it. Are you feeling okay? Yeah
- Do you have any other questions? No.
- We can talk about this again later if you think of something. Okay? Okay
What I told her was true, but I didn’t need to tell her the whole story. I stopped when she stopped and then we moved on. I often feel like I want to shield my children from all of the terrible things, but I think it can feel scarier for kids to hear something that they know was bad, but not know what it was. I think this approach helps in these situations and for all sorts of other tricky questions too.