The Toughest Questions Kids Ask, Answered
I admit that the constant-questioning phase of my kids’ preschool years felt alternately joyful and exhausting. I loved the insight into how their brains were developing and appreciated that their awareness of the world was growing. But, sometimes, I desperately craved a moment of silence. Or the ability to listen to the radio without constant intrusions, such as “What does Taylor Swift mean when she says, ‘I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream?’”
At 6 and 9 years old, they still ask a lot of questions, and they’re getting more difficult: the technically challenging ones, the unanswerable wonderings, the emotionally charged inquiries. Kelley Kitley, a psychotherapist, TEDx speaker and mother of four children aged six to 12, told FamilyMinded that straightforwardness and reliability starts with the parent.
“I want my kids to know they can get the truth from me and that we can have honest conversations,” she said. “Kids get so many mixed messages and information from unreliable sources. If they ever feel confused or want more in-depth information, they know they can come to my husband and me without judgment.”
So, in the spirit of honesty, reducing shame and stigma, and respecting developing minds, here’s a look at some of the most difficult questions kids ask and how you might respond.
Let’s tackle the easiest of the hard questions first. You’ll probably be able to answer some, but not all, of the most common inquiries under this category: Why is the sky blue? How does the internet work? What are radio waves? Why is the ocean salty? How did the world begin?
If you have a liberal arts background, like me, you may very well have heard or read the explanations at some point — but that doesn’t mean you can recreate a correct and age-appropriate answer on the spot. Someone actually studied this and found that 28 percent of parents offer answers that sound vaguely right, even if they’re not sure. I admit to having done this, too, but also follow up with, “We’d better look it up to double check.”
Many parents turn to the internet or encourage kids who are old enough to do so themselves. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about spider monkey habitats and whatever else momentarily — and dramatically — fascinates my kids. At some point in our Google consult, I’m sure to remind them that back when I was a kid, we didn’t have the internet — at which point my kids roll their eyes and respond, “We know, Mom. You had to go to the library or ask someone!”
Questions like “what’s a loan?” and “what’s an interest rate?” came up frequently when my family was buying our house several years ago. Try explaining those to kids under five! Like the mythical beast Hydra, whose terrible heads multiplied every time one was cut off, each of my answers sprouted another dozen questions.
One way to approach questions about money is to say something along the lines of, “We have enough for what we need, and some — but not all — of what we want. Every family has to make choices about what they can and can’t buy.”
... And Where It Comes From
Others among my favorite money-related inquiries: Can’t you just make more money, get more money from the bank or buy a new car with your credit card?
If only, my children! If only.
If kids don’t like your simplistic “we have enough” response — because let’s be honest, they usually always want to purchase a new toy — it could be a good time to start a birthday/Christmas/Hanukkah wish list, which helps them plan, anticipate and prioritize. It could also be a good moment to introduce the notion of chores and — you know — the fact that people usually have to work for money.
Santa, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy
For younger kids, parents may be conflicted when faced with questions like, “Are you Santa?” or “Is the Easter Bunny real?” And, of course, there’s, “Why did the tooth fairy give me $2 and my friend Lucia $10?” Another parent suggested a way to preserve the magical mythology of childhood without lying. “I believe that Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” she told her kids, and it bought her a little time.
In my own family, I admit to keeping the tooth fairy charade going a bit longer than normal. I managed to do it without lying per se, but I may have surreptitiously authored “fairy notes” and then tucked them under pillows and around the yard. Let me add that we’re Jewish, and so — without Santa or the Easter Bunny — the tooth fairy was all my kids had!
Social Inequalities and Injustices
Now that my two are a little older, they’ve started to notice that some people live in tents in our home of San Diego. They see others with signs asking for money, and — as compassionate and curious humans — they want to know why.
Finding age-appropriate ways to explain homelessness, let alone racism, homophobia and a million other injustices, is tough. But parents can provide information while encouraging kids to discover ways to make a difference. If they’re concerned about homelessness, they can write a letter to their city council or save allowance money to donate. Need more resources for social justice conversations? Try this list of books for kids on topics such as disability, bias, discrimination, gender and sexism, among other topics.
Sex and Porn
Even if you’re a parent who’s undaunted by the birds and the bees, the subject can still get tricky. I’m completely comfortable talking about how babies are made and born, but I got pretty uncomfortable when my daughter asked, “Can you choose how many babies you have?” “Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” is not a satisfying answer for a 6-year-old, and I wasn’t yet ready to talk about rape, birth control, reproductive rights or even infertility.
If older kids come to you with questions about pornography, it may feel supremely awkward — but it’s also a very good sign. It means they want your guidance and trust what you have to say about the subject. Gail Dines, a parent educator and founder of Culture Reframed, suggests encouraging your kids to consult you if they see “confusing, disturbing or inappropriate” sexual images online. “Do not shame or blame your kid,” she told FamilyMinded, “but listen to their concerns and respond in a non-judgmental, caring way. Explain the difference between healthy sex and porn sex by stressing intimacy, consent, connection and equality.”
This conversation, emphasized Dines, is not the one-off kind, but one that should continue throughout the adolescent and teenage years.
Drugs, Alcohol and Addiction...
Thirty-three states have legalized medical marijuana, and 10 have recreational laws on the books. In Southern California, billboards for recreational cannabis now pepper the freeways, and my two eager readers have asked me what they’re all about.
Personally, I consider this a fair topic of conversation. I’ve told them that cannabis is medicine for some people and something fun, like alcohol, for others. But this conversation begets other, harder questions about why kids shouldn’t use it and why people sometimes use too much of it (along with alcohol and other drugs). For questions about why alcohol and certain drugs are mostly OK for adults and not for kids, I usually compare those substances to grown-up vitamins or pharmaceutical medications — something that only fully mature bodies can handle.
...And Your Experience With Them
The topic of drugs and alcohol is age-dependent, of course, and the conversation needs to get a lot more nuanced and specific as kids get older. Adolescents and teens might want to know whether you used alcohol or drugs as a teenager. Merriam Saunders, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Marin County, told FamilyMinded that if the answer is yes, you’re faced with a hard choice. “You will be admitting behavior that you do not want from them, and possibly giving them an excuse to do the same,” she said.
If you do choose to be honest, you can frame it in the context of how you feel about those actions now. “You may want to share what you wish you'd done differently and what you hope for your child,” she said, “in addition to acknowledging the dangers, the law and the various ways that things could go terribly wrong.”
Questions About Religion
Depending on your worldview and belief system, you may or may not have answers to the questions: Who is God? What does God look like? Who made God? Is God real?
Some parents want to instill a specific belief system or consult religious traditions for clues about divinity, while others invite kids to ponder these issues independently or point to nature as a reflection of the divine. It’s OK to say things like, “Some people believe ABC, while others believe XYZ.” It’s also OK to admit that you don’t know and to elicit their thoughts on the subject.
Wendy Thomas Russell, author of “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids When You’re Not Religious,” recommends taking kids’ curiosity on this subject as a chance to reflect on your own beliefs, or lack thereof. She points out that God means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and suggests using some historical context about varying belief systems.
Often spurred by the death of someone they know — or that of a pet — kids can get curious about what comes afterward. You may have encountered: What happens when we die? If you die, who will take care of me? Or, the more humorous, if you die, can I have your jewelry/scarves/iPhone?
While none of us can provide absolute certainty, reassurance and simplicity are key for these kinds of questions. Sariel Ende-Alonzo, a mother of three and teacher in Burke, Virginia, suggests gathering information from your child to ascertain what he or she is really asking. Questions about death may simply be a child’s way of needing reassurance that she will be taken care of and loved no matter what.
Dr. Parie Faridnia, a clinical psychologist in private practice, says that children under eight rarely grasp that death is permanent. She suggests making observations about their interest and then asking questions to clarify. For instance, you could say, “You’re really curious about this. What do you think happens after we die?”
Though it will of course vary based on a child’s developmental stage, parents can help children start to contemplate the big questions and develop their own opinions. Faridnia says that a simple answer can frequently satisfy a younger child. But for those whose curiosity isn’t sated, offering different perspectives and beliefs about death — just as you might about God or divinity — gives children a window on the vast diversity of human thought on the subject.
Kids whose parents are divorced, or in the process of divorce, may have questions about why. Saunders says that, even when the two parties are furious in private, children will weather divorce better if parents can amicably communicate the situation. “Explain the truth to the closest of your ability without vilifying either party,” Saunders said.
For very young children, that doesn’t require much detail. Saunders suggests something like, “There are lots of different kinds of love, and the love mom and dad share has changed. But our love for you will never change."
With older children, find more mature words to communicate the same essential message.
Let Me Get Back to You on That…
If you’re standing in line at the grocery store and your preschooler loudly notes, “that person looks like a mommy but talks like a daddy,” you might feel flustered or embarrassed thinking about how the seven strangers behind you will judge your response while your favorite ice cream melts on the conveyor belt. In tough, tense or too-busy situations, it’s perfectly alright to say, “Let’s talk about that at home,” as long as you do eventually address the question.
I fielded a question about gender identity with my 6-year-old recently, and my answer fell somewhere along the lines of, “Some people feel, in their minds and hearts, that they should be a girl even when they’re born as a boy, or the other way around. And they might choose to change their bodies, or the way they dress, in order to fit what feels most right to them. It’s OK for people to do that because it’s important to feel comfortable and happy with yourself.”
Simple, but — for that moment, at least — effective.
Open Communication Is Key
Many times, younger kids will ask difficult questions that may reflect the only way they know how to express certain concerns, such as “am I safe?” and “do we have enough?” Most experts stress that reassurance and open communication are both key here.
You want your kids to trust you to provide reliable information, and that’s one great reason to avoid lying or obscuring the truth. As children mature, they can start to mistrust adults’ credibility or access to good information if their parents don’t provide those things. This can lead to adolescents and teens relying on other sources of info — like peers and the internet — which can both be problematic.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with tough questions is that you’re human and don’t have to have all the answers. Parenting is an ongoing process — a continual conversation — and we have many, many opportunities to teach our kids what they need to know.