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Answering Kids' Toughest Questions

Q: "What happens when you die?"

A: "Well, all of the organs slow down. Your heart stops, your lungs don't get oxygen, but more important?"

To start, you can be literal in the medical sense, and then bring in your religious and cultural beliefs about death, the soul, and the afterlife. Often, these questions are linked to a recent death in the family—meaning you should tell them that you, too, miss Grandma. "Children appreciate parents who really listen and reflect and don't try to charge in with the cavalry," says James Brush, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Cincinnati. "Sometimes just reflecting the feeling behind the question is enough. Sometimes they're not looking for information—they're looking for empathy."

Q: "Did you ever do drugs?"

A: "Yes, I did, actually. And I almost got kicked out of school because of it."

Ooh, gotcha! Tell the truth about any rebellious or illegal acts and it comes off as an endorsement. Tell a lie and your kids know you're full of the S-word. What's a joint-smoking, grain-drinking teen-turned-parent to do when a tween starts the third degree? Don't lie, because it will ruin your credibility, says Michele Borba, Ed.D., educational psychologist and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. "Research says that kids say the worst lie they were ever told was a lie their parents told them," she says. "That said, you don't have to tell the whole truth." Fess up, then tell the story about how it came back to bite you in the A-word; this, of course, works for the older set (with younger kids, who may be more curious than accusatory, you can be a little more evasive). "Stories about your past life work. What they're looking for is information on how to deal with an issue. What they don't like is when you turn your stories into a sermon," Borba adds. "They love to know you blew it."

The result of coming clean, Borba says, is that you've established a safety net that shows you're not perfect, that you know they're not perfect, and that you'll be there for them when they're not. To avoid having your past actions come off as an endorsement, Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, suggests telling your kids this: You have 100 percent control over your actions, and zero percent control over the consequences. You control what you drink/smoke/do, but you have no clue as to what the cops/judge/girlfriend's parents are going to do. Let them do the math.