Here’s why I’m always honest with my kids
What should you say to your kids when they ask you how babies are made or what happens when we die? I tell them the whole truth and nothing but the truth…
When I was six, my dad told me, “There’s no God, but don’t tell your friends because it’ll cause fights.” I immediately ran to my best friend and told her what my dad had said. A huge fight ensued.
As I was growing up, I often thought back on that defining childhood moment and wondered why my dad had been so honest with me. I felt a mix of admiration and concern. Was my dad normal?! Other parents seemed to sugar-coat stuff like that a lot more.
Three decades later, I became a mom and I was suddenly faced with the question of how I would address life’s big topics with my three daughters. What would I tell them when they asked how babies are made? Or whether there’s a heaven? Or what happened to my dad who took his own life when I was 20?
I’m lucky enough to be a writer and to learn so much through my work. When I have a parenting dilemma, I find the answers to all my questions by doing research and talking to experts in different fields. I’ve written articles on how to talk to your kids about sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, sexting, social media and death.
The one common thread that emerged from all these topics was: be honest. Make sure your explanations are age-appropriate, but don’t lie to your kids. If they find out that you weren’t truthful, it could seriously shake their sense of trust.
“Easy!” I thought. “I can do honest.” But when I started to think about what I would actually say, I realized it wasn’t that simple. How do you explain sex and death to a four-year-old in “age-appropriate terms”?! I decided to plan my responses so that I’d be ready when I was asked. Here’s what I came up with…
Where do babies come from?
My eldest daughter first asked me this when she was three. I said, “The mommy and daddy make the baby together and the baby grows in the mommy’s tummy until it’s ready to be born.” She seemed satisfied with that explanation.
When she was five, she probed for further details. I said, “The daddy puts his penis in the mommy’s vagina and his sperm goes into the mommy’s egg and that’s how the baby is made. It grows inside her tummy – well, her uterus – and when it’s ready to be born it comes out of her vagina. Though some women have an operation and the baby comes out of their tummy.” Sounds like a lot for a five-year-old to digest, right? Nope. She looked completely unfazed and said, “Oh, OK!”
Why doesn’t Josh have a daddy?
When my big girl was four, she heard that one of her daycare friends didn’t have a dad and she asked me about it. I said, “Well, he did have a daddy who helped make him, but his daddy and his mommy didn’t get along anymore, so now they don’t live together and it’s just his mommy who takes care of him. Some families only have a mom, some only have a dad, some have both but they don’t live together, others have two mommies or two daddies, and some kids live with their grandparents or with foster parents. There are all sorts of different kinds of families, but the one thing that’s the same is that they love each other so much.”
I addressed gender identity and sexual orientation in a similar way. “Some people might look like boys but feel like girls and vice versa. There’s no right way to dress or look or act just because the world thinks you’re a boy or thinks you’re a girl. Every person gets to decide what’s right for them and who they love. Boys can love boys, girls can love girls, and everything in between. Some people don’t like the labels ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ at all because they don’t feel like they’re either or they feel like they’re a bit of both. It’s important to respect how people feel about themselves even if it’s not what we expect.”
What happens when we die?
Another great lesson I learned while writing those articles was to use teachable moments (unplanned events) to tackle big topics whenever possible. So, when we rescued a bird with a broken wing and found it dead in its box the next morning, I recognized the sad event as a great opportunity to teach my kids about death. I explained to my then four-year-old and two-year-old twins that the birdie had died and that meant its heart had stopped beating and its body had stopped working. “Is it sleeping?” one of my twins asked. “No, honey,” I explained.
“It’s dead and that means it can’t move or sleep or do any of the things it could do when it was alive.”
We buried the bird in the garden and had a little funeral for it. My eldest asked, “My friend told me we go to heaven when we die. What’s heaven?” I said, “Some people believe that heaven is a place you go when you die and part of you lives on there, but Dad and I don’t believe that. We believe that your body breaks down and becomes part of the earth and helps nature grow. But we aren’t sure that we’re right; nobody knows for sure. So, it’s important to respect what your friends believe too, OK?”
How did Grandpa die?
Finding the right answer to this question has caused me a lot of grief since my daughters were born. How do you explain suicide to a small child without giving them the idea that it’s a viable option? I did a lot of research and spoke to a couple of experts, and I’ve settled on what I will say when the time is right. My daughters haven’t yet asked me how he died, and while I’m impatient for them to ask so I can get it off my chest, I know it wouldn’t be right to tell them before they’re ready.
I’ll say, “Grandpa died by suicide. That’s when you choose to make your body stop working. It’s very sad when someone chooses to do that because it means that they were probably very sad and maybe they felt like they didn’t have anyone to talk to. Talking to someone we trust when we feel sad can help us feel better and not choose to die by suicide. It’s very important to talk to someone when you feel sad, OK?”
Is there a God?
My eldest asked me when she was five and I said, “Some people believe that God created the Earth and all the life on it. Dad and I believe that the Earth was created when a big explosion called the Big Bang happened and all the matter and rocks and dust came together to form the Earth. And then all the life on Earth started slowly evolving over millions of years. First, there were fish and they eventually crawled out onto the land, and then over a very long period of time they evolved into humans. But, like with heaven, we aren’t sure we’re right, so we have to respect everyone’s views.”
Saying it like it is
There isn’t a single topic that can’t be addressed truthfully with children. Every parent needs to find the words that feel right for them and their family at each age and stage. The truth really does set us free.
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