My 5-year-old is very inquisitive. He asks a million questions a day. I love his curious attitude towards the world, but it has led to some tough questions. Sometimes, he will ask me a question that makes me cringe, a question I don’t really want to answer.
“Mom, are there ‘bad guys’ in real life?”
“Mom, what happens to kids if their parents can’t take care of them?”
“Mom, what is that man standing on the corner with a sign doing?”
I really wish we lived in a world where “bad guys” were only pretend, where every single child had a loving, safe home, and where no one had to stand on a corner and beg for food. I want to shield my kids from painful realities. I find myself pausing, trying to find the right words.
I’m searching for words that are honest but not terrifying. I’m grasping for answers that are true but also hopeful. So how do we answer the tough questions?
I once heard someone say that it is not our job as parents to shield our children from every painful thing in this world. Rather, it is our job to teach them how to cope with it. This reminder has encouraged me to search for honest answers to hard questions.
Has your child ever asked you if a shot is going to hurt? Have you ever been tempted to say “no”? I have.
But can you imagine the look of betrayal and horror on your child’s face when they felt that first painful prick? We have to tell the truth because they are going to learn the truth. Shots hurt. I can say, “It probably won’t hurt as bad as you think” or “I’ll be right there and you can squeeze my hand.”
The same principle applies to answering tough questions from kids. I can’t lie because eventually they will find out the truth. My best approach is to give an honest answer and offer some skills to cope with something difficult.
Give Age-Appropriate Answers
I believe in giving our kids honest answers, but we have to do that within the context of their age. Some topics are just not appropriate to discuss with very small children. Sometimes we have to be vague or explain that we can discuss that topic more when they are older.
In my experience with little boys, any show with “good guys” and “bad guys” and even mild fight scenes can provoke all kinds of questions about good versus bad, right and wrong, danger, weapons, and violence.
Thanks a lot, PJ Masks! Now I have to field questions about the nature of evil from a 4-year old while I’m cooking dinner.
With some of these difficult questions, my son was too young to really engage in this conversation and I had to give some vague answers. For example, “Yes, there are some ‘bad guys’ in real life, but most people are good. Right now, it’s my and daddy’s job to protect you. We will keep you safe because you are so precious to us.”
Answering tough questions from kids can be stressful and difficult. Frankly, most adults are still grappling with these very questions. But it provides a great opportunity to talk to your kids about really important things.
We can teach them about maintaining positivity when life is hard. We can teach them to be compassionate and look for ways to help others.
When asked about children without parents, I might say something to my older sons like, “Yes, there are children in this city whose parents can’t take care of them. They might move in with a different family member or a foster family. When we see something really sad in the world, we should think about a way that we could bring hope to that situation.” A difficult question could turn into an opportunity to buy backpacks for CYFD or bring a meal to a foster family.
Fred Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” When we discuss painful topics, we can encourage our children to be helpers.
Embrace the Questions
Although my son’s questions have, at times, made me sweat and scramble for words, I also love his many questions. His inquisitive nature has led to some delightfully cute questions like, “Why don’t people ride zebras?” (My answer was “Well . . . I don’t know.”)
So whether you are trying to explain the meaning of the universe to a 4-year-old or researching the domestication of zebras, take a deep breath and just do your best. I wish you luck.
Oh, and the reason that people don’t ride zebras is because, apparently, zebras are mean.
Originally published July 2019.