It happens to every parent: Your child asks a question and you find yourself debating all the possible and best ways to answer. Here’s some expert advice for how to approach those questions and ensure you and your child are both happy with the answer!
As soon as kids learn how to talk, they start asking questions. In the beginning, those questions are fairly easy to answer, but as they grow older their questions are more complex and therefore more difficult to respond to.
This is what I have learned with my nine-year-old daughter, who first asked me a question I found hard to answer when I was pregnant with my second child. She wanted to know how the baby was going to come out of my tummy. Not knowing how to appropriately address this question and few others she has asked over the past few years used to bother me a lot. Thankfully, I have had the honor to speak to some experts who have kindly answered all of my concerns about this topic.
The Importance of an Honest Answer
When my daughter asked me how the baby was going to come out of me, I answered her with a made-up story. At first, I was happy with my approach; however, after telling my mother about it, she talked to me about the importance of telling kids the truth. She said that if I didn’t respond to my daughter with the truth, or did not respond to her at all, she might try to find the answer somewhere else, and that the answer my daughter might receive might not be as accurate or appropriate as the one I would have given her. However, and even though what my mother said to me on that day seemed logical, I was still not very sure about it.
When I asked Dr. Raphael Folman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, his opinion on the topic, his response confirmed what my mother had told me. “In my experience, and from my knowledge of children’s mentality, it’s essential never to lie to them, or dismiss their questions,” he says, “But the answers must be tailored to their age/maturity level of understanding: it just confuses a five-year-old if the answer is at a 15-year-old level.”
Similarly, Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that kids are likely to get worried when we don’t tell them the truth: “Because they sort of sense you are not telling the truth, and that you are hiding something [...] and they are more likely to get worry if they think those things.”
Furthermore, she says that if children get the impression that the subject is a hidden, forbidden topic and that we don’t want to talk about it, we would never have a discussion about it, which, of course, it’s not good.
What to Keep in Mind When Responding to a Child
One of the reasons I didn’t tell my daughter the truth was because I thought she was still too little to fully comprehend the truth. Back then, it seemed logical to me that my response should be in accordance with my daughter’s age. And I was right (just that it didn’t mean telling her a made-up story): Both Carlsson-Paige and Folman agree that the response to a child’s question should be in accordance with the child’s age and maturity level.
For example, according to Carlsson-Paige, our answers should be a bit different (but always with the truth) when responding to a child who is 13 years old than to a child who is six years old or three years old, depending of the child’s level of maturity and development. In addition, Folman suggests that we parents need to keep in mind the child’s overall previous behaviour and activities in order for us to figure out when he or she is ready intellectually for a specific answer.
Understanding What a Child is Really Asking
Ever after telling my daughter my made-up story about how the baby was going to come out, I had been wondering how I could have better addressed that question. So during my interview with Nancy Carlsson-Paige, I asked her what the best way to address a child’s question could be.
She suggests that before responding to a child, we need to make sure we really understand what the child is asking, which can be achieved by asking the child questions such as: “What do you really want to know?” or “What is it you like me to tell you about?”
She shared with me her anecdote with a five-year-old girl who asked her what a bomb was, to which Carlsson-Paige replied by asking the little girl what she thought it was. The little girl’s response was that it was something bad in an airplane, and that she was scared because her daddy was going in an airplane. This example gives us a better sense of how we could easily “misunderstand” a child’s question. This young girl, for instance, didn’t need to know what a bomb was but rather reassurance that there was not anything for her to worry about.
She adds that after finding out what the child really wants to know, the best way to address a child’s question is to answer him or her with as little information as possible at first. She says that sometimes a parent would launch into a fifteen minute lecture in response to the child’s question when a one-sentence explanation would had been satisfactory to him or her. “Tell them just a very little bit, and then see what they say after that: Do they want more? Do they ask another question? or are they satisfied with that little bit of information?” she says.
Furthermore, Carlsson-Paige advices that when a child asks a question such as what is sex or what are drugs, we don’t want to respond with, “That’s horrible! Where did you hear about that?!” But instead, she suggests we should calmly say: ”What do you think that is? Where did you hear about that?” as if we were talking, “What kind of yogurt do you want for lunch?”
We Can Transmit Our Anxiety to Our Children
When I told Carlsson-Paige that I was afraid to tell my daughter the truth about childbirth because I was afraid it could be somehow “traumatic” for her, she told me that there was no reason she would be traumatized, that if I told my daughter the truth very matter of factly and I didn’t make it sound like there was anything to worry about, she was not going to be worried. “I think that it’s very important for us to be very direct, matter of fact, and honest about these subjects with children,” she says.
In addition, Adaljiza Escano, who worked as school physiologist in the New York City school system, told me that “parents can transmit their own anxiety to their children.” She suggests that by being anxious ourselves about certain topics, we make our kids anxious about it, too, while in reality their reactions to every day facts tend to be much better than what we anticipate. So it seems that the key factor is to talk to our kids and respond to their questions as normally as possible.
Moreover, in my opinion, when a child asks a question about sex, drugs, or any other sensitive subject, they create a teachable moment in which we not only have the chance to address their questions but also to instill our morals and values in them, plus give them the comfort of knowing that they have somebody they can trust and come to with their concerns. But as Carlsson-Paige says they are only going to talk to us about these topics if they feel comfortable, because they know we’re comfortable.
Kids ask. How to handle their questions.
My daughter, whose questions inspired me to write this post, is growing up. In just few years, she will be a teenager. And as she gets bigger so does my desire to be able to address her questions and concerns regardless of the subject, because I know I am one of the people who can positively influence her present and her future.
That is why having learned from the experts how I can appropriately address her questions gives me great satisfaction and sense of relief. Now I know that the best way to do so is to first find out what she really wants to know, to answer her with as little information as possible at first, to not overreact, and, of course, to always answer her with the truth.
I feel confident that the next time I’m faced with a tough question from her or any of my other two children, I have the knowledge to appropriately do so. Because no matter what my children’s questions are or what the subject is about, I want to always be able to answer their questions and give them the best answers and advice possible.
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How do you approach your children’s sensitive questions? Do you agree with the above methods for handling children’s questions? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.