How do we answer? I asked the child experts and shared their wisdom in this month's issue of Working Mom Magazine.
Tell Me Why
experts answer tough questions kids ask
Inquiring young minds want to know: "How did I get inside your tummy?" A child who had just experienced the death of his Lola may ask: "Mama, are you going to die too? Questions like these may fluster even the most intelligent and enlightened parents.
When my son was two, he asked: "Why is the sky so big?" Hmmm... do I reply with science or do I get into my first existential conversation with him? I settled for a bit of both, but it really got me thinking. When my child gives me a tough question, how deep should I go? How specific? I want to be honest but, what if I confuse him more? Suddenly I had more questions than my son.
So, I turned to the pros. Child experts give us advice on what--and what not--to say in answer to 8 tricky questions kids can ask:
1 Why did Lola have to die?
Bennie Ancheta-Veloso, curriculum director of Explorations Preschool and mom to 5-year-old Mauro advises against saying "Lola is just asleep" or "resting." First of all, it's just not true. Young children don't grasp euphemisms well. If Lola was taken by an illness, a good approach is to emphasize that she does not feel any pain or "owee" anymore. Don't forget to clarify that death happens when people are extremely sick, so your child is not terrified by his own sniffles.
Bringing God into the discussion at too-young an age is also tricky territory. My 4-year-old niece was devastated when her favorite Lolo passed away. In an effort to appease her, she was told Lolo was taken by God to live with him in Heaven. Now she's upset with God because "he takes people away and never gives them back!" When talking to young children about death, explain the facts first without the spiritual aspect. You can discuss your religious beliefs another time.
Teacher Bennie offers advice that's good for any question thrown your way-- always look for context. Asking where the question comes from (a book, a TV show, or an experience?) will guide you in what direction to take your answer. Be honest about death being inevitable, but keep your answer brief. Add details only if your child has follow-up questions.
2 How did I get inside your tummy?
Deborah Rothman wrote the book Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex. She says a question like this does not necessarily call for a talk about the birds and the bees. A small child just wants to know: "How did I get here?"
If your 3-year-old son asks you this question, he's not asking for details about your sex life. You just have to give him a little biology lesson. If your child is curious about how the sperm enters mommy's body, you can say: "When adults make a baby, the vagina and penis fit together like puzzle pieces so the sperm can go in to meet the egg."
Teacher Bennie gave her inquisitive preschool son this answer, as she drew him a "scientific" illustration: "Daddy has a kind of seed inside his body called a sperm, and I have an egg inside mine. This sperm from daddy joined up with the egg inside me. The sperm swam to my egg using its strong tail. It swam very, very fast."
3 Why do they say Tito John is gay?
Rothman suggests you first clarify what a couple is. Give examples like you and your husband, an aunt and uncle your child knows are married. Explain that couples love each other in a special way. They love each other's company so much that they spend a lot of time together or get married like mom and dad. Then explain how there are cases when couples are made up of two men or two women. Since Tito John has a boyfriend, not a girlfriend, then he is gay. In case Tito John is single, say he prefers that his special someone would be a man like himself, not a woman.
Kids will often take this simple, factual answer. Tell your child that they may hear the word "gay" used negatively and that it is nasty to use the word that way. Use this as a teaching moment to explain tolerance and acceptance of different people.
4 If God is real, why can't I see him?
Didi Manahan, directress of Keys Grade School, says she is conscious about being theologically accurate when answering questions about God. A practicing Catholic, she would respond this way:
"There are many things that are real that we can't see. We can't see the air, but we believe it is there because we can see it rustling leaves or feel it cool our faces. We can't see radio waves, but we know they are there because they make our cell phones and internet work. In the same way, we can't see God, but we can see the things He does. When you are extra patient with your brother that is God working through you. When people helped the victims of Ondoy without being asked, that's God working through them.
5 If God is good, why are there bad people and poor people?
Teacher Didi says that if you do not have a ready-response, it's fine to admit this to your child. Explain that you need time to think about your answer or even do some research. She herself took time to think this one out and came up with this reply:
"There are poor people and there are bad people not because God made them that way, but because of bad choices that people make. God did not promise he would get rid of poverty or bad people. What he promised us is that even if we sometimes do bad things, he will love us. He also promised that if we are sorry for the bad things we do, when it is time for us to join Him in Heaven He will welcome us. He made this promise to everyone."
6 Mom and dad are fighting, are they going to get a divorce?
Leah See, assistant directress of Keys Grade School says, "This particular question is very telling of a child's anxiety. It's important to affirm your child's feelings first, then give your answer." Here's how she would reply:
"I can see you're upset because your mom and dad are fighting. Moms and dads try their best to love each other, but sometimes they disagree and that can lead to an argument. When they argue or fight it doesn't mean they are getting a divorce or that they don't love each other anymore. They just have to figure out how to resolve their disagreement."
7 Why is Sandro's house bigger and nicer than ours?
This question reflects an unintended form of peer pressure and a child's wish to be more like his friend or for you to be more like his parents. Joe Sibayan, curriculum coordinator of Keys Grade School advises against using statements like "they are richer" or "we are poorer" or "because we can't afford it." This can make a child feel deprived, maybe even skew his sense of values towards materialism -- or stir up envy.
Assure your child you have enough resources to care for the family, but emphasize that being rich in love and happiness is more important than material wealth. Here's how teacher Joe would put it:
"Grown-ups decide to do different things with their money. Sandro's parents decided to spend a lot of money on making their house nice and big. We decided to spend it on other things, like that nice trip we took last year and saving money for your school. How did you feel when you saw Sandro's house was so big and nice? I hope you felt happy for him, because that's how we should feel when we see other people have nice things."
8 Why is f@_k! a bad word?
Emphasize to your child that words in themselves are not bad, but the intention behind saying them can be the problem, says teacher Joe. Remember previous question No. 3? If your child is reprimanded for blurting an expletive and asks why that word is bad, here's how he would explain it:
"You know that you can touch in different ways, right? There's a touch that's loving, like when you hug or shake hands. There's a touch that hurts, like when hands are used to hit someone. It's the same when you talk. You can talk in a loving way by using gentle words. But there are words that can hurt. Those words you just said are words that hurt others, so we choose not to say them."