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The Toughest Questions Kids Ask

What they really want to know  -- and how to answer

 

The facial expression is a little-kid classic: brows arched, mouth slack, eyes wide and unblinking.

The room, meanwhile, has suddenly gone silent.

Two things have just become clear:

1) You've been asked a serious question by your child and

2) You don't know how to answer.

I used to pride myself on possessing an encyclopedic storehouse of answers to kids' questions ("No, there's no such thing as monsters"; "Yes, I will always love you")  -- that is, until the day my 3-year-old asked me if Lucille Ball was in heaven with my father. That's when I knew that children wouldn't be children if they didn't routinely unleash the sort of stumper that gives ordinary parents pause. These inquiries address the kinds of issues that have perplexed moms, dads, and the occasional philosopher since time began. And more often than not, they first come up when your child is of preschool age. What to do when your child asks:

"Why Do People Die?"

"Why do people die?"

Variations:

"Are you going to die?"

"If you die, who will take care of me?"

"Did Fluffy go to heaven?"

What he's really asking:

When the father of my older daughter's playmate died unexpectedly at 50, her questions about death began. This isn't uncommon, say experts: When young kids ask about death, they're usually most concerned with their own safety. "If someone close to a child dies  -- whether it's a relative or a pet  -- he could begin to wonder if he's going to die and be separated from his parents," says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising Resilient Children. "Also, a preschooler's understanding of death is not fully formed, so it's not uncommon to hear, 'I know Grandma died, but I'll see her tomorrow, right?'"

How to answer:

Rather than muddle through a talk on death and dying, cut to the heart of the matter. "A good first response is 'What do you think about this?'" says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child. This is not a dodge. If it turns out he's actually worried that he won't have anywhere to go if something happens to you, you can tell him that you'll always make sure he's taken care of.

If someone he knows has died, remember that person warmly, by sharing stories or looking at photos. Talking about heaven is fine, if you like. Express that while your child won't see the person anymore, he can always think or talk about her.

What not to say:

Absolute guarantees are never a good idea. "Telling your child 'We'll definitely be okay' isn't really accurate. Better to use qualifying terms, such as 'Most planes don't crash,'" says Brooks. These responses quell fears but are still honest.

If a pet dies, it's best not to say something like "It's so sad that he's gone, but we'll get another dog soon." A preschooler  -- who views his pets as part of the family  -- might think, "If I die, will Mommy get a new boy?"

"How Much Money Do We Have?"

"How much money do we have?"

Variations:

"Are we rich or poor?"

"What does 'We can't afford it' mean?"

"Why can't I get new skates like Jessica did?"

What she's really asking:

Am I the only one, or does this question always seem to pop up when we're outside Toys "R" Us? No coincidence, says Brooks. "Money questions often indicate that a child is thinking, 'Am I going to get all that I want?'" Since most young kids don't know the difference between a nickel and a dime, their questions are rarely linked to grown-up concerns, such as social status or financial stability. They do get that money is what Mom uses to satisfy their needs, so the real meaning varies, depending on what your child wants or needs right then.

How to answer:

Rather than address the larger issue of a family's fiscal health, you can start by explaining, "There are things we can buy and things we can't buy," then list some of those items. After that you might say, "So tell me what it is you want." Meanwhile, says Shure, "if a child is asking you for money, whether it's a quarter or five dollars, you can respond, 'Well, what would you buy if you had that much?' The response will lead you directly to what your child wants." If she just wants money because she sees you with it, it's time for a mini-wallet and spare change.

What not to say:

Don't talk about money in ways that generalize. "Phrases like 'We don't have that kind of money' unnecessarily raise issues about whether your family is secure," says Shure. And talking about actual dollars won't make much sense, either. If you're in a toy store and your daughter wants something that's expensive, give her an option to pick out something else or explain that this particular toy is the kind that goes on holiday lists. That's what I do at Toys "R" Us. Even in August.

"What Is God?"

"What is God?"

Variations:

"Why don't all my friends go to our church?"

"Does God know when I act bad?"

"Who is Jesus Christ?

What he's really asking:

My wife is Episcopalian and I'm Jewish, which often leads our daughters to ask us about their own religious roots. But according to Brooks, such inquiries don't always concern denomination, especially in preschoolers. "Regardless of their faith," says Brooks, "children hear the word 'God' all the time  -- think 'God bless America' and 'God bless you.' Their questions are less an existential inquiry than a request to define a word that keeps coming up." This isn't to suggest that God doesn't carry spiritual weight for kids. "Thinking about God often signifies the beginning stages of empathy," says Shure. "At this age, if the child is feeling bad or guilty about something, he may wonder if God is some part of the equation, whether God's watching over him or helping him work through his problems."

How to answer:

It depends on what you believe. You need to first look at your own values and decide what God is to you. Then you can give such answers as "God watches over us" or "God is not someone you can see, but someone you feel." If you don't believe in God, you can explain that a lot of people do and that it's okay if you don't always agree with your friends.

In our two-religion household, we tell our children that they get the best of both worlds. And what kid doesn't love getting a two-for-one deal?

What not to say:

Be careful of portraying a wrathful deity. "The idea of a God that punishes can be very scary at this age," says Brooks. "It can be easily misinterpreted and cause anxiety."

"Why Do You and Mommy Fight?"

"Do you and Mommy still love each other?"

Variations:

"Why do you and Mommy fight?"

"Why does Teddy only have a father?"

"Do you love Daddy as much as you love me?"

What she's really asking:

Children often take parental spats personally and worry, "Are you going to yell at me too?" A 4-year-old may not have the cognitive ability to focus on others, but kids this age may wonder if Mom and Dad are mad at each other. From a kid's perspective, if people who love each other fight so much, how secure can love be? In fact, "Do you love me?" is often the next question.

How to answer:

"It's important to explain that you care about each other's feelings and that if you didn't, you wouldn't tell each other how you felt," says Shure. This helps kids understand that ordinary parental arguments  -- which differ in tone and content from children's spats  -- don't have to threaten family harmony. Incidentally, wordless answers can do the trick as well. If one of my children asks me if I still love Mommy, I've found that immediately kissing my wife puts the question to rest, pronto.

If household discord continues, remember to keep it away from your kids whenever possible. But when they can't help but notice, you can try to keep the notions of love and fighting in separate camps by adding, "Right now we're working on fixing some problems." This idea of grown-ups working to resolve their differences is a good lesson and could also serve as a foundation for later, more complicated conversations should you  -- or other adults your child knows  -- ultimately decide to separate or divorce.

What not to say:

As Brooks points out, "just saying 'Yes, we still love each other' when you're fighting a lot isn't really a complete answer." Better also to acknowledge that your child has picked up on the anger, and remind her how much you love her.

"Where Did I Come From?"

"Where did I come from?"

Variations:

"How was I born?"

"How do you make a baby?"

"What does sex mean?"

What he's really asking:

"There's an old joke about a child who asks, 'Where did I come from?'" says Shure. "The mom goes into the whole birds-and-bees thing, and after five minutes the kid says, 'Oh. I thought I came from Philadelphia.'"

Tempting as it is to believe that preschoolers' inquiries about birth are actually veiled questions about sex, it's not just about that. When my wife was carrying our second child, our older daughter wanted to know if she was once inside Mommy too. Sometimes it's a matter of their own anatomy. "Children are starting to notice that boys' and girls' bodies are different," says Brooks, "which leads them to wonder how they got that way."

How to answer:

Because "Where did I come from?" is such a loaded inquiry, you may want to respond by lobbing the ball back into the child's court. "Say, 'What do you know about where you came from?'" says Shure. This way, you can gauge your response: If you tell him what he already knows, he'll tune you out; if you tell him too much, he won't be able to absorb it. Stick to simple facts, such as "You grew inside my tummy." If he wants to know more, you can add, "And then you came out through my vagina." As he gets closer to 5, you can explain that Dad plays a part too  -- that he puts something called sperm inside Mom to help make the baby grow.

What not to say:

They're not ready for the details of sex, but don't lie, either. Skip the stork story or an answer like "We picked you up at the hospital."

Whatever the tongue-tying stumper that's posed by your kid, don't be silent. That will only signal that he's asked a bad question. Think of these puzzlers as opportunities to chat with your child and figure out what's going on in that little head. After all, it won't be too long before he's reminding you that he actually knows everything.

  Bruce Kluger reviews videos and DVDs every month for Parenting.

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