One recent Sunday I served as the parent helper in my church’s preschool Sunday school class. We listened to a story about Jesus’ birth and the children played with little wooden figurines that represented the characters— Mary, Joseph, various wise men and shepherd types— the whole manger gang.
After the story the children continued to play. My daughter fiddled with her shoe straps and my son asked for more snack before taking the baby Jesus for a donkey ride. But one little boy was quiet. He looked at me with huge brown eyes and asked in a whisper voice if “that story really happened.”
I stammered, not knowing what to say. I know what I believe- yes. But this wasn’t my child and I didn’t want to delve into the question of interpretation with a child so young. The Sunday school teacher intervened and explained our church’s teachings, but it left me wondering: How should the tough questions from young kids be handled?
This isn’t the first time a toddler has asked me a sensitive question, and I sometimes struggle to know how to respond. When it comes to big questions— about the nature of God, life and death, or even just where babies come from— it can be hard to know what to say.
I’ve asked child and adolescent therapist and parenting expert Katie Hurley to help us sort through this issue.
What types of questions do parents of young children seem to have the most difficulty with?
Parents tend to struggle with answering questions about death, religion, and where babies come from (the big three). These are difficult concepts for children to process, and it is the natural instinct of the parent to want to shield their children from these topics for as long as humanly possible.
Is honesty REALLY the best policy?
Honesty lite is the best policy when it comes to young children. You want to offer facts and use correct terminology (yes, that means saying things like “penis” and “vagina”), but you also want to avoid overwhelming them with too many details.
It’s always a good idea to ask a follow up question before you answer, so that you can get a sense of what your child already knows and what information will be useful to him. At the end of the day, your child is asking a difficult question to get some concrete answers.
Keep it honest, but keep it simple.
How should parents keep responses developmentally appropriate?
The most important thing is to speak in words or phrases that your child can understand and avoid euphemisms (this is particularly important when talking about death).
As parents, we always need to think about what our children are capable of understanding. For example, while preschoolers (age 3-6) tend to rely on magical thinking and struggle to understand cause and effect (they might feel responsible for the death of pet or an argument between parents), early elementary school aged children (age 6-9) tend to be more concrete thinkers and ask very direct questions.
Allowing your child to lead the discussion and avoiding the urge to jump in with elaborate answers ensures that you can focus on your child’s specific needs.
“Keep it honest, but keep it simple.”
How can parents allow children to explore their own thoughts and feelings and come to their own conclusions?
Children approach us with difficult questions because they need answers. They want the facts. That said, children need time to make sense of these topics, and we can’t tell them how to feel.
It is our natural inclination to try to answer every little question for our children. We want them to have the right information, and we want them to move on. But exploring their feelings and processing difficult topics is an important life skill. They need to learn to cope with their feelings and make sense of the world around them.
Play is the best way for young children to work through difficult and/or overwhelming feelings. You can engage your child in play by setting out specific play sets or toys that might help them tackle a difficult topic, but it’s always best to let the child lead the play.
Art is another powerful form of expression in young children. Preschoolers often benefit from a simple prompt and some markers and papers. Engaging your child in an art project is a great way to help them feel less threatened and open up about difficult topics.
Can you recommend a few books?
Marge Heegaard has a great series for young children coping with difficult life circumstances, including: “When Someone Very Special Dies,” “When Something Terrible Happens” (Trauma), and “When Mom and Dad Separate.”
I also want to mention this great resource from Hospice: Children’s Understanding of Death.