My four-year-old is quite precocious and inquisitive, and his verbal reasoning ability routinely amazes me. He often has very thoughtful questions and you can just see the wheels turning in his head when he reasons out answers to things. I love longer car rides, because for some reason this is the forum where the most creative questions emerge. Sometimes they are fun questions about why there aren’t any more dinosaurs or what a solar eclipse is. But sometimes they’re hard questions that don’t have easy answers. So I’m torn by how honest and detailed I want to be with him before he loses interest or the information overloads him.
Here are some recent examples of hard questions that gave me pause.
A week ago, we were all in the car heading home from a weekend adventure at Costco, and we were listening to NPR because none of us can agree on music choices. Typically, my son doesn’t really pay attention to this because NPR is “really boring” and I don’t blame him. On this particular car ride, however, there was some sort of story about racism in our society and my son hears the words: “racial inequality.”
I then hear from the back seat:
Mommy, what’s racial inequality?
My husband and I both look at each other and stare for a moment, half-hoping that he’d forget he just asked the question. Maybe we could distract him away from a sticky conversation about social structures and injustices. Nope. He asked again, and this time he added, “That man just said ‘racial inequality.’ What is that?” Ok, I guess we are going here.
I like to err on the side of being honest with my kids as much as I can.
Therefore I don’t shy away from difficult topics (e.g. death, race, sickness, disability, etc.). However, the topic of race – and on top of that, inequality – makes me struggle for words. We’ve talked to my son about skin color and how we are all different. But we haven’t mentioned any social structures influenced by race. I know this will be a very deep and impactful conversation and I’m just not ready for it yet. I think this is a better conversation for when he is more aware of the world outside of his tiny one of home, school, and neighborhood community.
So I told him the basics of what he was asking (e.g. a definition). I told him that different people have different skin colors, and I asked him to name several friends who have different shades than him. I then said that some people unfortunately believe that some skin colors are better or worse than others and that this makes people sad which is what “racial inequality” means. Then I said that just because some people believe this doesn’t make it true. We are all important and we are more than just our skin color. He nodded and agreed.
And then he asked about ice cream.
I think I handled this one well, but I know that this is a start of something broader. It’s a good idea to think about answering these hard questions with basic answers. Then let the child dictate how much elaboration they need or want on top of that.
It is NOT a good idea to side step these questions or direct away from them because they won’t go away.
This one was pretty easy because it reinforced the values that we teach my son about equality and personal value. But the next challenging question wasn’t as easy.
On Tuesday, my son’s school celebrated Patriot Day by having the fire department come by and do a flag ceremony commemorating September 11th. Of course, my son came home and asked about what September 11th was. I know that this question will come up, and once again, NPR helped me out here. They were doing a piece on how to talk to children about the events without scaring them or minimizing their impact. So I took their cue, and we had a brief conversation about bad men who wanted to hurt our country by destroying buildings and our sense of safety, but we as a country came together and decided not to be afraid so the bad guys didn’t win. This was what we celebrate on Patriot Day. My son seemed satisfied by this explanation, and I think we started something that will grow from here.
I know that there are always hard topics, and this won’t change as my son gets older and explores his world more. I think it is very important as parents to engage with them and give them honest and age-appropriate answers.
It is ideal to provide clear and simplified responses, but also to ask the child questions to get at what they are really asking.
Is this a clarifying definition kind of a question? Or is a question based on an experience that they need help understanding? By getting at the core of the hard questions being asked, you can guide the conversation better. And when in doubt, it’s completely ok to say that you don’t know but that you will find out. Promise to talk to them about it when you know more. Then actually follow through. It won’t get any easier as they get older. But by creating open lines of communication, it can feel more natural.
For more thoughts on how to answer hard questions from our children, check out these related posts: