“How come Betsy has two Moms?”
We were at my son’s therapy surrounded by Moms and other children when my three-year-old daughter popped that particular question. One of those Moms happened to be in the clinic at that moment.
I know I’m not alone.
On Facebook recently I saw a post from a mother asking how to deal with the hard questions.
You know, the extremely embarrassing questions our kids ask out of the blue.
Questions that leave you in shock that they’ve been brought up at all at this age.
Questions that they ask when it is the most inappropriate time to hold a discussion about the answer.
The ones that you might not have answers to yourself.
So when my child asked “Why does my friend have two Moms?” My reply was the classic, “Um, ah, let’s talk about it later when we get home.”
I needed a minute to think about how I wanted to respond to the question because I was not expecting this question from my 3 year-old. (Of course it would be my youngest who would ask this because she is extremely observant of social nuances around her.)
How many of you have had your child ask you one of these gems?
“Where did Grandpa go when he died?”
“What is sex?”
“Where do babies come from?”
“Why is that boy’s skin so dark?”
“Why is that girl missing a leg?”
Or the immortal question, “Is Santa Claus real?”
These questions take us by surprise. We don’t expect that question to come out of our child’s mouth right then. “Deer in the headlights” is probably one of the best descriptive phrases of this situation.
I’ll never forget when one of my children asked the question if Santa Claus was real. We were in the drive thru at Walgreens and had been waiting forever to pick up our medication.
One of my children lobbed The Question, and I, without any forethought, replied, “No, he isn’t real.” Dead silence in the car. I don’t think they were much older than 5 and I had just ruined Christmas for them. (I’m not fond of telling kids that Santa Claus is real anyway but that is a whole other article.)
You want to answer your child and answer them truthfully. But maybe you haven’t thought out how you want to answer yet.
Or maybe you are just too stunned that they asked that question to answer.
Or maybe as in the case of Santa Claus you don’t want to answer it truthfully and have to think up a reasonable story. After all, Santa Claus is a fun tradition and you don’t want to spoil your children’s or your friend’s children’s Christmas’s.
My parents weren’t very forthcoming with answers to these types of questions. I would almost say they actively discouraged some of them. When I had children of my own, I was determined to not repeat this cycle. It was important to me to be open and honest with my children but still retain their innocence as appropriate.
Years ago one of my children’s therapists passed on valuable advice for handling these kinds of situations. Here’s what she explained-
Children spend a lot of time wondering about things. Their brains are working overtime trying to figure out their world. Much of the time children are thinking out loud. They may not necessarily even want answers to their questions and may not be ready for them. They are simply voicing their thoughts.
Keeping that in mind, here are the three steps that have helped me respond to the difficult questions my kids lob at me without ending up feeling like a deer in the headlights, or unwittingly squashing their innocence.
The First Step – Mirroring
When a question comes up, the first step is to mirror back to the child what they said. “You’re wondering where Grandpa went when he died. You must really miss him.”
Most of the time at this stage, they want validation for their feelings and thoughts but aren’t actually looking for answers yet. Frequently when answering in this way, it leads to them telling you more about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
Perhaps you will find out that they aren’t wondering so much about where Grandpa went, as worried that someone else in their life might die. Often, the questions that they are asking are only related to what they are really concerned about.
The Second Step – Let them Ask Again
When the question is asked a second time, mirror their question again. See what they are thinking. Gauge their readiness for receiving the information. Maybe they are ready for more information. But likely, they still won’t be quite yet. An example would be when my daughter asked the question, “What is sex?”
The first time I mirrored the question back. (And boy was I grateful for this method of answering!)
When she asked the second time, I said, “You want to know what sex is. I want to tell you, but I want to know that you really want to know the answer to the question first. So when you decide you really want to know, tell me and we will have that discussion.” This way I left it up to her to decide when she was ready for that information.
Several days later she came to me and told me that she was ready to know the answer and we touched on the basics. It was a fairly short conversation (editor’s note: see here for details of how another mom handled this) but I think the key is that it won’t be our last conversation about it. It could be later in the day, it could be next week or next month, but if your child really wants to know they will be back for their information.
This method of mirroring back what my child is saying to gauge their readiness has worked exceptionally well for me. I may not have all the answers. And I am definitely not ready with them on the tip of my tongue.
Instead, I get time to put thought into how I am going to address a hard question before it comes up again. I can make a game plan, search out books about the topic for myself and/or for my child. It gives me a window into their thoughts. This method also ensures that my child is really ready and wants to know the information that is being asked and is developmentally ready for it.
The Third Step – The Answer
The third time the question gets asked, assume that they really want to know the answer and are now ready for an age-appropriate answer.
But what is an age appropriate answer?
That is a great question. I would rephrase the question. “What is an appropriate answer for my child?”
We know that children mature at different speeds, and it really depends on your child and no one knows your child like you. There are some three year-olds that are not going to leave you alone until you give them an answer.
There are some children who are not interested in the deep questions of life and aren’t going to ask these questions until they are MUCH older if at all.
In recent conversation with the daughter previously mentioned, who is 10, she let me know that she was not ready for a big in depth discussion. As she was starting middle school, her Dad and I wanted to talk to her about how she would be hearing from people that gender is just a social construct, and that it doesn’t really matter.
We wanted her to hear from us what our thoughts on the matter were. Once we got through the basics, she let me know that she had heard enough by telling me, “Okay, that’s enough.”
Experts agree that conversations with children on subjects like sex, and bodies should start when they are toddlers. “What is a boy? What is a girl? Share basic information about sexuality.
Take advantage of a teaching opportunity like bath time or getting dressed in front of a mirror to teach about body parts using their actual names. “Look at picture books,” states a document produced by the New Hampshire Health and Human Services.
One of the most important things to take away is that, as a parent, we should not back away from these difficult conversations. It’s important that children get the information they are seeking.
And they are going to have these conversations with someone. Whether that information comes from you or from a child at school. Wouldn’t you rather have them learn the facts as you understand them rather than the sketchy information they are going to hear from Johnny down the street?
I learned most of what I knew about sex by 1st grade from the kids who had older siblings, and their information left a lot out and some of it was just plain wrong.
We need to know that it’s also okay to say, “I don’t know the answer.” Because sometimes in the case of questions like “Where did Grandpa go when he died?” you may not have the answer to that question yourself yet. As long as we are open and honest about it, our children are going to trust us with their thoughts and feelings.
In the article “Daddy Got Fired, Are We Going To Be Poor?” by L.S. Dumas, published in Psychology Today, a few good points are brought up about talking to your child about job loss. That is a hard conversation to have and many of those tips are equally applicable for the questions we are discussing here.
“Level with your child. . . Kids count on their parents for the truth. . . A child may conjure up some far worse scenario. . . if you don’t level with him or her from the start. . Maintain a normal routine. Children depend on routine and predictability to assure them that their world is safe. Don’t overburden your child. “
It’s tricky, answering all those unexpected and hard questions. We don’t want to overburden our children, but at the same time they do have a right to an answer. There is a balance to be struck and mirroring before answering can help you find it.
2-Minute Action Plan For Fine Parents
What is the question you dread the most? Is there one mentioned above that your child might ask or something similar?
Take a minute to imagine a scenario where your child asks you the question. How would you react? How would you like to react?
This is where you should start. Think through a similar scenario to one you will likely experience. This prepares you to answer a similar question.
Journal a mental (or physical) list of topics that might come up in conversation with your child at some point. Trust me, you can’t even dream up all the crazy questions or situations that you will be asked about. Your child is guaranteed to surprise you.
Long-Term Action Plan For Fine Parents
Take the list of topics that you have made from the 2 Minute Action Plan and take time to think and figure out your thoughts on those topics. Read what the experts have to say about them. What is your belief system about these matters? If you have settled that, it will be easier to talk with your child.
You may not have the answer when your child asks the question. Don’t back away from the discussion. Mirror the question back. Find out what your child is thinking. Remember that when your child has asked a 3rd time they are likely ready for the information.
Be open and honest with your child. They can see through a lie or a hedge faster than you think.
Find books that are age appropriate for your child that align with your views. Ask your friends with slightly older children what books worked well for their children. The American Girls Body Book is an excellent one for information for girls about their changing bodies.