What to do when Your Kid Asks One of those Tough Questions

by Polly Hall

Kids seem to stumble upon life's biggest questions when we least expect them.  I'll never forget when Andrew and our then 3-year-old came to find me on the couch one Saturday afternoon.  "Izzy has a question," Andrew said.  And then Izzy asked, "do people and animals in families die?"

Whether they want to know where babies come from or why the sky is blue, kids are full of questions.  These questions have been on my mind lately while working on our Puzzles episode of Ear Snacks.  

We know how to answer the easy ones.  But what do you do if your kid asks you a question about something really complicated - and then just stares at you with their big ol' kid eyes?  Here are some ideas.

Answer only the question that they've asked.  It's easy to get flummoxed when your kid asks you a complicated thing that's all tied up with other big thinking stuff.  When my son asked me if about death, he didn't ask me what happens when we die, he didn't ask me about religion and science, he didn't ask me about the beliefs of others or how that affects the relationships between countries, he didn't ask me about my own mortality.  He asked me if people and animals and families die, and the answer was "yes, people and animals and families do die."

Give your words a little space.  It's also okay to give your answer and then wait.  There's a lot of thinking happening in that silence.  It's not awkward to let a big question - or a big answer - hang in the air for a time, feeling its own weight.  This means it's also okay to give yourself a moment to formulate an answer.  You can always say, "that's a hard question - I need a minute to think of how to say my answer."  But don't wait until tomorrow - if your kid has gathered the strength to ask a difficult question, you'll want to let her know she can count on you.

Use simple language but don't be simplistic.  Kids can - and want to - understand complicated stuff.  They may not have a completely robust vocabulary, so things will go over better if you use language that is easy to understand.  Be as clear as possible.  But that doesn't mean you should dilute concepts by treating them as if they are not complex - difficult stuff is difficult and if your child is asking a difficult question, answer it confidently with a level of difficulty that's age-appropriate.

Layer meaning.  We joke sometimes that explaining things to a preschooler can be like explaining something to Encino Man - the "Ear Snacks" language for that is that every day we are helping kids build healthy schemas (for more on that, check out our episode "Ear Snacks for Parents:  How Does this Get Made").  It's hard for a kid to hear an answer that contains something else he doesn't understand, so try to build from the ground up.  Think about the answer you're going to give and ask yourself if there's something embedded in that answer that needs explaining first.  Tell your child, "I'm going to answer that question and it has a few parts.  The first thing you need to know is..."

Tell the truth.  I know, obvious.  But seriously - it might be easier to lie.  Or easier to lie via omission.  Or easier to lie via over-simplification.  Or lie for the sake of humor.  Your child is capable of handling the real, true answer to any question he asks.

Finish your answer with a question.  While applying the least amount of pressure possible, it's a good idea to gauge how your answer was received.  "What do you think about that?" "Would you like any more information about __________?" "I wonder why __________, where could we go to find out more?"  And the age old, "How do you feel about that?" really works - and they haven't heard it before!

Be there with your child.  Put down everything else, look your child in the eye.  Connect with your child physically by holding their hand, touching their shoulder or rubbing their back.  Set any other children away from you.  Let your child know how important their question is to you and how focused you are on providing the answer.  While you're at it, thank that wonderful kid of yours for asking.

I am realizing that every chance I have to answer a question my child asks prepares me for some big question mark in our future when it's really going to count.  This little stuff - even this big stuff - it's on-the-job-training.  Sometimes in the moment, it's hard to make the time.  But later on the questions are going to get tougher - and you want your child to keeping coming back to you with their questions.  Who knows, they may even want your advice one day.