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Answering Kids' Toughest Questions
"What happens when you die?" "Did you do drugs?" Be prepared with answers to these, and other, tough questions kids ask
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Early on in parenthood, our jobs are clear: We protect, we provide, we cuddle, we change diapers, and we subconsciously coax our runts to inherit our inherited appreciation of Mr. Marvin Gaye. But soon—namely, the minute they learn to string together a sentence punctuated by a question mark—the job changes. We're expected to become encyclopedia, philosopher, or Dr. Ruth at any given moment. They ask, and they ask, and they ask.
Just in the last week, my 9-year-old twin boys have asked me questions I could answer with a few sentences ("Why does the offensive line tackle the defensive line?"). They've asked me questions I could answer with one word ("Do women get paid to take their clothes off in movies?"). They've asked me questions that made me laugh, squirm, and retreat all at the same time ("Is poh-jine-uh a bad word?").
That's the thing about kids. They don't want us to lie, to stall, to evade, to ignore—and they come to us, expecting us to tell them that the proper pronunciation is indeed vuh-jine-uh. It's just that we're not quite sure how to bridge their expectations with our instinct to be a bit coy when delicate issues arise. Here, a guide to helping you navigate some of their trickiest inquiries.
Q: "Why do boys have a penis and girls don't?"
A: "In almost all animals, this is the big difference between males and females, and it has to do with the ability to make babies."
Kids catch on pretty early that one gender has extra flesh on the chest and the other more between the legs. But the minute we get the first body-related question, we clam up like a lawyered-up perp—for fear that they'll learn too much too soon. "While these questions aren't issues for children, they are for parents. But if they're wondering, just go right at it," says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. His suggestion for younger kids: Give the quick explanation above and then say that you'll tell them a little more when they get older. If you're brief and honest, that usually satisfies their curiosity.
Now, if the kids are older—around the double-digit range—you're going to have to tell them that when two people are in love, sometimes they express that love by inserting the penis into the vagina, both for pleasure and for producing a baby. This may also be a good time to give them a rundown of your family values surrounding sex—along with the facts about what can happen when you have it unsafely: specifically, catching a disease and becoming responsible for a baby of their own before they're ready.
Q: "What's the F-word?"
In the past few months, my boys have learned a new alphabet—the A-word, the S-word, even the P-word (at a Flyers game, as in "Get up, you [nice little kitty cat]!"). But for a long time, they thought the F-word was pronounced "foulk." When the question about an expletive does come up, Kazdin says, try not to yell or freak out (as in "Don't let me ever hear you say that again!"). If they've reached the age when they're likely to hear it and be curious about it (say, 7 or 8), just go ahead and tell them what the word means. Convey the point that you're happy they asked, and then explain that it's a word your family doesn't ever use and you will get in trouble if you do. "The reason those words have power is because adults don't talk to kids about this stuff," he says. "They have power because they cause a reaction. If a child knows them, then it's not a big deal—it takes all the energy out of it."
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.
Q: "Why are you two fighting?"
A: "When you love someone and spend a lot of time with someone, you can disagree on some things. And we just had a disagreement over why your father hadn't taken the lawn mower to get fixed yet."
When kids ask questions about things we think they're not ready for, it's tempting to be evasive. But that just leaves the kids thinking "What?" and coming up with their own answers. Not good. Instead, simply say "It doesn't mean we don't love each other. It just means we disagree about things every once in a while. When that happens, our voices may get louder and we get more emotional, and sometimes when we get emotional, it shows we care," suggests Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Thinking Parent, Thinking Child.
Q: "Why were you on top of Daddy?"
A: "When two people are in love, they like to be close to each other physically."
Literally and figuratively, there's no need to be in this position at all (hello, door locks). But if you are, you can get around it with little ones, after you properly separate ("Just hugging and playing, darling"). The savvier kids get, though, the more uncomfortable the scene. Try not to overreact in the heat of the moment. "Stay very objective and explain what's happening in a supportive voice, not an embarrassed one," says Shure. And if she comes right out and asks if you were having sex? "Say yes—and we should have locked the door. Then tell her you'll talk with her more about it in the morning," advises Shure. No need for a long discussion.
Q: "Who do you love best?"
A: "Why would you think I like one of you better?"
Here, your child senses something—that you like a sibling's art project, athletic prowess, or report card—and no matter how hard you try to be fair, she sees favoritism in it. So your goal is to elicit information—finding out why your child thinks her siblings are getting all the love. Of course, the child is simply looking for reassurance from you—on a school project, band recital, swim meet. So talk about all the things you love about her. Be careful not to dismiss the question outright, and be sensitive. Kids do pick up when one parent has a natural affinity to one child.
Q: "Why do you have to make such a big deal of everything?"
A: "Great question, honey."
Maybe you flipped because you didn't approve of her walking around the neighborhood by herself or wanting to create her first Facebook page. And in the grand scheme, your child may be right—it might not be that big of a deal. And that's exactly why you should tell her that it's a very fair question. But then follow up by telling her that at this time in her life, there are a lot of issues that she may not understand when it comes to her safety. "Sometimes parents just have to take the fall for being overprotective," Brush says.
Q: "What's erectile dysfunction?"
A: "This is about the body and how blood runs through the body. Sometimes old age means that the system doesn't work the way it should, and you need medicine to deal with it."
Now that my kids are allowed to stay up a little later on weekends and watch football games with me, we know there's a chance they're going to be exposed to some off-color content—namely, in the form of George Lopez's show and ED commercials. "You better be ready for that question," my wife keeps saying to me.
I am. I'll give the facts. The real reason you need to come clean on these types of uncomfortable questions is because it establishes that you're open to talking about tough topics. "Teenagers and preteens want to go to their parents about sex, drugs, and alcohol—they want to talk to their parents, but they can't," Kazdin says. The reason: We tend to fail to establish open lines early on. "Your explanation about erectile dysfunction isn't needed as much as a genuine response is," Kazdin adds. "Instead of thinking 'Oh hell, honey, I think he has a question for you,' think that it's good that they're coming to you."
Q: "Why are you such a jerk?"
"This lack of respect is so infuriating, it's best to walk away and not engage," Kazdin says. "You want to avoid saying 'I'll talk to you when you don't have such an attitude.'" That just plays into your child's hand and furthers the conflict, he explains. Silence allows everyone to hit the pause button. Then when you get back at it (and say how you will not tolerate disrespect and that attitude), explain that part of the job of parents is to take care of kids and make decisions that they won't always agree with. It may not change your child's mind, but your job isn't to win his approval; it's to explain your position thoughtfully without engaging in destructive confrontations. "When you're trying to fire back, you can make a lot of blunders that will make communication difficult," Kazdin says.
Q: "Why does grandpa smell?"
A: "When people get old, they lose their sense of smell, so he might not even know he smells bad."
Then try to probe a bit. "Does it bother you to be around Grampy?" You'll want to see what she's really getting at, suggests Brush. Finally, just explain directly that older people can't take care of themselves as well because they're less mobile and their senses have dulled, so they have a harder time with their hygiene. A little sympathy can defuse the ridicule.
Q: "Why does Johnny get to play Hulk video games and I can't?"
A: "Tell me about the game."
Parents like to resort to the "because I said so" argument, but as kids get older, that's about as effective as a leadless pencil. They're going to use the "everybody else is" argument, and that's actually not as stupid as it sounds, Kazdin says. Instead of shutting him down out of hand, investigate with the other parents what's going on -- how violent the game really is, for example. Ask your kid to tell you about it, to explain why he wants to play it, and then offer a compromise (after you check out the game yourself): You can play for ten minutes at a time a few days a week, and we'll see how it goes; if there's no change in your behavior, we'll talk about whether you can play more. "You can give a little slack, but you can have demands with it," Kazdin says. "The kids don't get to choose everything; it's not a buffet. But compromises can make a huge difference."
Answers You Wish You Could Give, but Can't
Q: Why were you on top of Mommy, Daddy?
A: She doesn't like reverse cowgirl all that much.
Q: What happens when you die?
A: Worms feed on your eyes.
Q: Who do you love best?
A: Your younger sister. And it's "whom."
Q: Is Santa real?
A: Dude, do you really believe elves who live in a part of the world without much of an electrical infrastructure can program Wii games? Think, Frank, think.