Answering kids' toughest questions
Q: 'Why do boys have a penis and girls don't?'
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.
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?'
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?'
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."
Q: 'Why are you two fighting?'
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?'
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?'
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?'
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.