Parenting Magazine, August 2003

    The Toughest Questions Kids Ask
    What they really want to know—and how to answer.

    By Bruce Kluger

    The facial expression is a pre-schooler classicbrows arched, mouth slack, eyes
    wide and unblinking. The room, meanwhile, has suddenly gone silent.

    Within seconds, two things become clear: 1) you’ve just been asked a serious
    question by your child, and 2) you don’t know how to answer.

    Most parents pride themselves on possessing an encyclopedic storehouse of
    answers to even the toughest queries from their pre-schoolers. By the time a child
    reaches the age of inquisitiveness, Mom and Dad are hip to the things that make
    their toddler tick, and can rely on a familiar battery of quick-response consolations
    to keep anxiety at bay (“No, there’s no such thing as monsters,” “Yes, I will always
    love you”).

    But inevitably, a child unleashes a question or two that can give otherwise confident
    parents pausequestions that address the kinds of issues that have perplexed
    Moms, Dads and the occasional philosopher since time began.

    Here are five standard-issue stumpers, along with interpretations, comments and
    suggested responses from the experts.

    THE QUESTION: “Why do people die?”

    VARIATIONS: “Are you going to die?” “If you die, who will take care of me?” “Did
    Fluffy go to heaven?”

    WHAT THEY’RE REALLY ASKING: “Research shows that a child’s understanding
    of death is not fully formed by pre-school age,” says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a
    clinical psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and co-author of
    Raising Resilient Children (Contemporary Books, 2001). “So a toddler’s comments
    about it are likely to reflect that confusion. For example, if his grandmother passes
    away, it’s not uncommon to hear, ‘I know Grandma died, but I’ll see her tomorrow,
    right?’ The idea of finality isn’t all there yet.”

    Overall, says Dr. Brooks, most preschoolers’ inquiries about death are reflections
    of their own sense of safety. “If someone close to the child dieswhether it’s a
    relative or a pethe could begin wondering if his relationship with his own parents
    will be similarly disrupted. ‘What about Mommy and Daddy?’ suddenly becomes the
    million-dollar question.”

    HOW TO ANSWER: Rather that muddle through complicated scenarios on death
    and dying, says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child
    (Pocketbooks, 1996), it’s better to cut to the heart of the matter. “A good first
    response is, ‘Why are you worried about that?’ This is not a dodge, but instead a
    way of honing in on the child’s real concern. If a preschooler’s mother is sick, for
    example, questions about dying are legitimate; if no one in the child’s universe is ill,
    we need to explore other reasons for the anxiety.”

    Dr. Shure says parents can feel safe invoking the timeworn sanctuary of “heaven,”
    in that it not only relieves the sadness, but “also assures the child that the
    individual who died will be remembered as a good person.” Parents who are
    reluctant to talk about heaven can still use the occasion of someone’s passing to
    remember that person warmly, she says, by sharing stories and exchanging
    memories with the child.

    WHAT NOT TO SAY: “Absolute guarantees about life are never a good idea,” says
    Dr. Brooks. “If a child is fretting about her parents dying, telling her ‘We’ll definitely
    be okay’ isn’t really inaccurate. Better to use quantifying terms, such as ‘most
    planes don’t crash,’ or ‘most mommies and daddies don’t die at a young age.’
    These are appropriate responses in that they quell fears but are still honest.”

    Adds Dr. Shure: “You also want to be careful not to say anything that will scare the
    child. ‘Everybody dies and we don’t know where they gobut we do know they’re
    never coming back,’ will only provoke more worry. Similarly, if a pet dies, you don’t
    want to say, ‘We feel sad that our dog is gone, so we’ll get another one right away.’
    Parents might think statements like this will comfort the child, but preschoolers
    who view their pets as part of the familymight think, ‘If I die, will Mommy get a new
    boy and forget about me, too?’”

    WHEN TO TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN: Most anything can trigger questions about
    dying, says Dr. Shure, from the actual passing of a loved one to seeing a cowboy
    shot on a television show. As a result, she says, “it’s best to let the child bring the
    subject up. Remember, it isn’t the content of these questions that’s so important,
    but the context: why the child is thinking about death, and how is he approaching
    you about it?”

    THE QUESTION: “Where did I come from?”

    VARIATIONS: “How was I born?” “Are you going to keep me?” “What does sex

    WHAT THEY’RE REALLY ASKING: “There’s an old story about a mother whose
    child asks, ‘Where did I come from?’” recalls Dr. Shure. “The mom goes into the
    whole birds-and-bees explanation, and after five minutes the kid looks up and says,
    ‘Oh. I thought I came from Philadelphia.’”

    Tempting as it is to believe that preschoolers’ inquiries about birth are actually
    veiled questions about sex, both Drs. Shure and Brooks say it’s a lot simpler than
    that. “These kinds of questions usually arise at a time when children notice that
    boys’ and girls’ bodies are different,” says Dr. Brooks, “which, in a sense, leads
    them to wonder how they were made.” Likewise, say Dr. Shure, “if a mom is
    pregnant and her child is frequently being told, ‘There’s a baby inside there,’ of
    course he’s going to wonder if that’s the way he came into the world, too. He also
    may be worrying that he can be sent back inside someday, which is ultimately an
    issue about feeling safe.”

    HOW TO ANSWER: Because “Where did I come from?” is such a loaded inquiry,
    says Dr. Shure, parents may want to respond by lobbing the ball directly back into
    the child’s court. “Ask her to tell you what she means. Say, ‘What do you know
    about where you came from?’ This way you can gauge your response: If you tell
    her what she already knows, she’ll tune you out, because she’s not challenged; if
    you tell her too much, she won’t be able absorb it.”

    And keep it simple and honest, adds Dr. Brooks. “Believe it or not, telling children,
    ‘A baby grows inside of a Mommy’ is often enough to satisfy their curiosity—for the
    time being, at least.”

    WHAT NOT TO SAY: “This is not the time to go into the details of sex,” warns Dr.
    Brooks. “To kids, the concept of sex may be confusing and even scary; and
    although your answer may be wonderful, the child may not like what he hears.

    “Also,” he adds, “don’t lie. Some parents are so uncomfortable with the topic of sex
    that they frequently dodge and weave. This isn’t helpful. If a parent can’t tell a child
    even a toned-down version of conception—which is perfectly normal—they
    shouldnt tell them untruths, either, such as the stork story or ‘we picked you up at
    the hospital.’

    “One other thing,” he adds. “Don’t be silent. Silence communicates a lot to a child. It
    implies that he’s asked a wrong question.”

    WHEN TO TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN: Both Drs. Shure and Brooks say parents need
    not worry about approaching their kids to discuss the origins of their origins, as the
    child will usually come to them first. “Expect more questions along this line if Mommy
    or someone else in the child’s world becomes pregnant or has a baby,” he says,
    adding that this may be a good time to start looking for a book that can help them
    with phraseology, once the child’s inquiries move beyond the realm of Philadelphia.

    THE QUESTION: “Do you and Mommy still love each other?”

    VARIATIONS: “Why do you and Mommy fight so much?” “Why does Teddy only
    have a father?” “Do you love Daddy as much as you love me?”

    WHAT THEY’RE REALLY ASKING: “Lots of parents yell in front of their kids,” says
    Dr. Shure, “which often leads a child to wonder, ‘Are you going to yell at me, too?’ A
    four-year-old doesn’t have the cognitive ability to focus on others but himself. So
    from a child’s perspective, if parents who supposedly love each other are always
    fighting, love can’t be a very secure thing, can it? In fact, ‘Do you love me?’ is often
    the next question.”

    Dr. Brooks agrees that children’s worries about parental love—like those about
    death—are rooted in fears about their own security. “Kids worry about the family
    breaking up,” he says, “so they hone in on the cues of a home. They’re great at
    picking up vibes—whether good or bad—and are usually the first to wonder, ‘What’
    s all this tension about?’”

    HOW TO ANSWER: Because children are quick to interpret love according the
    rising and falling volume of their parents’ relationship, says Dr. Shure, “it’s always
    important to explain that you love them in a different way from the way you love
    your spouse—but both in good ways. This helps them understand that ordinary
    parental arguments—which differ in tone and content from children’s spats—don’t
    necessarily threaten family harmony.”

    In the event that household discord continues, adds Dr. Brooks, parents can still try
    to keep the notions of love and fighting in separate camps. “You can say to the
    child, 'Mommy and I love each other, but sometimes even people who love each
    other get angry. Right now we are having some problems, but we’re going to try to
    fix them.’” This idea of grown-ups working to resolve their differences doesn’t fall on
    deaf little ears, says Dr. Brooks; and such explanations could also serve as a
    foundation for later, more complicated conversations, should the child’s parents
    or the parents of a friend—ultimately separate or divorce.

    WHAT NOT TO SAY: Once again, both experts agree that truth is the most
    important component in answering inquiries about love. Says Dr. Brooks, “Just
    saying, ‘Yes, we still love each other’ when you’re chronically fighting is not really a
    complete answer. Better to say, ‘Yes, we love each other but right now we’re
    fighting too much, and we’re going to try to stop that.’”

    On the other hand, says Dr. Shure, parents don’t want to strip love of its most vital
    element—durability. “You never want to tell your kids, ‘Sometimes we don’t love
    eeach other because we get mad.’” This response only undermines the concept of
    love, and you don’t want to do that, especially at a time when love is needed the

    WHEN TO TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN: Although most agree that there’s no such thing
    as too much love, Dr. Shure warns that excessively expounding on it to children
    may have an adverse effect. “If you overdo talking about love, you sound
    insincere,” she says, adding that “the word would lose its meaning if it were
    discussed daily. As I like to say, the best way to express love is in how you treat the

    THE QUESTION: “How much money do we have?”

    VARIATIONS: “Are we rich or poor?” “What does ‘We can’t afford it’ mean?” “Why
    did Jessica get new skates and I didn’t?”

    WHAT THEY’RE REALLY ASKING: “Most four-year-olds literally don’t know the
    difference between a nickel and a dime,” says Dr. Shure, “therefore, questions
    about money are rarely linked to grown-up concerns, such as social status or the
    family’s financial stability.” So why do the dollars-and-cents inquiries persist?
    According to Dr. Brooks, “money questions often indicate that a child is wondering,
    ‘Am I going to get all that I want?’ By the time they’ve reached pre-school age, kids
    understand money as a direct connection to satisfying their immediate needs,
    whether it’s the food they eat or the clothes they wear or the games they play with.
    Therefore, the real meaning of the question varies from kid to kid. A child from a
    poor family may be asking, ‘Are we going to have enough food this week?’ while
    another kid may be saying, ‘Am I going to get the skateboard I want?’”

    HOW TO ANSWER: Rather than address the larger issue of a family’s fiscal health,
    Dr. Brooks says, “Parents can start by explaining, ‘There are things we can buy and
    things we can't buy,' then list some of those items for the child. After that you can
    say, ‘So tell me what it is that you need or want.’” Meanwhile, says Dr. Shure, “If a
    child is expressing jealously that, say, her older brother gets a five-dollar allowance
    and she doesn’t, you can respond, ‘Well, what would you buy if you had $5?’ This
    response will lead you directly to what the child is needing at that moment.”

    WHAT NOT TO SAY: Even if a child persists in attaching a price tag to matters that
    concern her, Dr. Shure advises parents not to talk about money in a ways that
    generalize or over-reach. “Phrases such as ‘We can’t afford that’ or ‘We don’t have
    that kind of money’ unnecessarily raise larger issues. Therefore, if you’re in a toy
    store and your daughter is asking for something that’s too expensive, it’s better
    simply to give her an option to pick out something else.”

    Adds Dr. Brooks: “It’s also wise to avoid ambiguous terms like ‘rich’ and ‘poor.’
    These words are, at best, relative. After all, one child’s PlayStation is another
    child's lunch money.”

    WHEN TO TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN: Neither Dr. Brooks nor Dr. Shure sees a benefit
    in raising the subject of money with children unless asked. “Because the question is
    usually linked to something specific that he wants,” says Dr. Brooks, “you can be
    pretty sure that he’ll be the one broach the subject again.”

    THE QUESTION: “What is God?”

    VARIATIONS: “Why don't all my friends go to our church?” “Does God know when I
    do something bad?” “Who is Jesus Christ?”

    WHAT THEY’RE REALLY ASKING: “Regardless of their faith,” says Dr. Brooks,
    “children hear the word God all the time—from 'God Bless America' to the 'God
    bless you' that follows a sneeze. Thus, their questions are less an existential inquiry
    than they are a request to define a word that keeps coming up.”

    This is not to suggest that God doesn’t carry some spiritual weight for pre-
    schoolers. “Thinking about God often signifies the beginning stages of empathy,”
    says Dr. Shure. “At this age, if the child is feeling bad or guilty about something,
    she knows enough to wonder if God is some part of the equation, whether it’s God
    watching over her or God helping her work through her problems. This is where the
    questions begin.”

    HOW TO ANSWER: Says Dr. Brooks, “Parents first have to look at their own values
    and decide what God is—whether a reflection of self, or a Biblical God, or that God
    that gave us Creation. Once that’s decided, then you can give answers such as,
    ‘God watches over us,’ or ‘God is not someone you can see, but rather someone
    you feel,’ or simply ‘God made the world.’ What you want is a concept that fits in
    with the beliefs of the family.”

    For parents who still wrestle with their own spirituality, says Dr. Shure, one good
    solution is to place God inside the child, as a guiding force for his or her own
    values. “Saying, ‘God is inside of you helping you to think about how to be good
    and kind to people’ frees the child from feeling guilty about doing something bad. It
    also assures him that he’s not being judged by some external being.”

    WHAT NOT TO SAY: “Don’t describe God as wrathful,” cautions Dr. Brooks. “For a
    pre-schooler, the idea of a God that punishes can be very scary; it can be easily
    misinterpreted and ultimately cause anxiety. It’s much better to portray God as
    loving. That’s a more positive concept for a child to live with.”

    Dr. Shure agrees: “Saying, ‘God is looking down on you’ takes control away from
    the child. Better to instill in her the idea that compassion comes from within you.”

    WHEN TO TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN: “As with any difficult topic,” says Dr. Shure, “I’d
    wait for the child to bring the God questions to you. If you broach the subject before
    he asks about it, he’s liable to misinterpret what you say, because he’s not ready to
    talk about it yet. Then when he does, keep it simple and honest. Find out what he
    already knows and doesn’t know, and take it from there.”

    In the end, says Dr. Brooks, inquiries of a spiritual nature are a part of a lifelong
    process. "Whatever way you decide to explain God," he says, "kids are always
    going to have many more questions—questions that will last for the rest of their