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How to answer a child's tough questions

Father and son talking
Credit: iStock.com/Neyya

Young children are well known for their capacity to ask questions: lots of them. But when those questions become less like: “What is that truck carrying?”, and more like, “Why is there war?”, some guidance can be helpful.

Questions like, “Why don’t we use that word?” or explaining what the word ‘sex’ means may not just be uncomfortable for parents, but seemingly require a complicated answer. So how can parents of young children handle the hard chat?

Professor Marc de Rosnay is a Professor of Child Development at the University of Wollongong who says we know from developmental psychology that questions are one of the most potent ways for children to learn about the world.

“If we stop answering their questions, they stop asking them,” he says. “They learn very early on who gives good answers to questions and who doesn’t,” he says.

Professor de Rosnay says it’s good to remember that if children are asking questions – particularly if they are seeking information – that’s a positive.

“Children ask a staggering amount of questions. It’s a very good sign. It means they are learning and it means they have trust in the relationship with the person they are asking. If the questions stop coming that should be a warning sign for a parent or an educator: we aren’t used to thinking that way,” he says.

Sometimes, if children ask a question we know a lot about, it’s tempting to overwhelm them with our knowledge.

“You have to see the question from their point of view. You give them just enough information and then say, ‘Does that make sense? Do you need more information?’. They might take years to understand important concepts, but the more important thing is that they know you are there to ask later on,” Professor de Rosnay says.

Professor de Rosnay says when parents are confronted with a question from a child that they’re not comfortable about, the best thing to do is to stop and observe your own reaction. 

“If they are asking about sex, they aren’t talking about sex as you know it – that’s your adult mind, that’s not where the child is coming from,” he says.

It’s important to remember that children’s questions are innocent.

“You need to be mindful of your own response. Especially for under five year olds – their questions are innocent ones,” he says.

If we stop answering their questions, they stop asking them. They learn very early on who gives good answers to questions and who doesn’t.
Professor Marc de Rosnay

While Professor de Rosnay says it’s vital to try to answer children’s questions, you don’t have to solve everything on the spot.

“It’s fine to ask for more time – but don’t forget to get back to them! It’s also fine to stand next to your child to find out an answer,” he says, noting this can work if the answer is complicated but not necessarily uncomfortable.”

You can also offer your child a chance to come back and follow up.

“Say something like, ‘You can ask me that again if you have more questions’.  That can help because the pressure sometimes makes parents freeze up,” he says.

But what about those particularly tricky questions? The big issues: sex, swearing and war? Are some answers better than others? Professor de Rosnay offers some suggestions.

Swearing

When a parent tells a child to not use a particular word, very quickly the child will ask “Why?”. The easiest answer, says Professor de Rosnay, is to keep it simple.

“Some swear words are just convention. You might get in a muddle trying to explain exactly what a particular word means. But what you can say is the meaning it has for the other person. For example: ‘It’s designed to make them feel bad’ or ‘Some people feel upset when they hear it because it’s saying something they think should be private’,” he says.

There’s also one other important factor.

“The first thing is to ask yourself is whether you swear. Children are sometimes perfect copies of people they observe, love and respect. So if you are going to impose a rule or think it’s bad for a child to swear, you may need to enforce the rule for the adults as well, and challenge yourself to think of a reason why. Straight prohibition doesn’t usually work,” Professor de Rosnay.  

Sex

The question most parents dread – “What does sex mean?” – or even, “What does the ‘F’ word mean?” can come up as early as preschool, usually due to children overhearing an older friend or adult.

Professor de Rosnay says at this age, a simple answer will usually suffice.

“You can say, ‘It’s a word that describes something that adults do to make babies, and it shouldn’t be said to each other in a nasty way’,” he says.

There’s a longer-term goal here too.

“Parents who won’t answer questions about sex have missed the opportunity to transmit their values to their child. They are then at the mercy of the values of the internet, other families or older children,” Professor de Rosnay says.

War

Admittedly, answering this is challenging:

“War is hard to explain because it’s dreadful and it violates all sorts of assumptions children might have about the world being benevolent and good,” Professor de Rosnay says.

Still, it’s important not to deny it. If a young child asks if war is real, the best answer is yes.

“Say, ‘Yes, it is awful. This is just a story [if it’s in a movie] but there are times in history and places in the world right now where there is war’,” he says.

As parents it’s healthier for our children if we can help our children integrate difficult answers, rather than denying they exist.

Given that much of the reason children ask questions is because they are looking for a framework to make sense of the world, your answer could connect to a family member’s experience by saying something like:
“There are times when these things happen and it’s very sad. Let me tell you about your grandfather,” Professor de Rosnay says.