This is not going to be one of those posts where I tell you what to do, because so much of this is going to depend on your particular kids and their particular environment. But I know it’s something that young moms struggle with, that I struggled with, that I continue to struggle with. But I think we’ve come up with a general policy that works for our kids and their environment. So today, I’m going to share how we handle touchy subjects, whether they are brought up by us, or by the kids themselves, or are forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control.
Preserving the innocence of my children is important to me, but it’s also important to me that we be engaged in our culture and the world around us. We aren’t hermits, we aren’t cloistered religious, we live in this world. And that means my children are going to be exposed to some concepts that I would have just as soon they never heard about at all, let alone heard about as children. Figuring out how to handle that fact has been a journey for me.
My oldest son was a very bright and observant little kid. He was always very aware of his surroundings, asking me about things he overheard in grown-up conversations, or read on billboards, or heard about from kids in the neighborhood. My policy with him was to almost always tell him that that was a topic for grownups and that we would discuss it when he was older. We prayed for an end to abortion without him understanding what that was. We had a Prop 8 (defense of marriage) sign up in our yard when he was six years old, but again, decided not to tell him what it meant. He didn’t know that there was such a thing as divorce or out-of-wedlock births. We even debated about explaining the concept of kidnapping or bad guys in general, not wanting to destroy his trust in the goodness of most people, but wanting him to know what to do in the very unlikely event that he was in danger.
But, eventually, I realized that I was going to have to talk to this kid about some stuff. I wanted to take the kids to say the Rosary outside the abortion clinic, and we became close friends with a family who have one child who has a different mom, born before our friends were married. I couldn’t keep avoiding all of these topics forever.
But by this point, since I had waited so long, it had to be a Big Important Conversation. I suppose there’s a place in life for Big Important Conversations, but I don’t remember any of the ones I had with my own parents with a particular fondness and I sure didn’t like being on the giving end of one either.
So I’ve totally changed how I approach touchy subjects with my kids. Here’s what we do now:
1. If I don’t like it, I don’t make a big deal about it.
Let’s call it the Voldemort method. I am not afraid anymore to name a thing for my kids. Instead of attempting to shield them as much as possible from any concept of a particular subject, I try to allow them to gain an awareness of it and an understanding of our family’s position on the matter, but without any big to-do.
This is especially true of subjects that are not immoral, just kind of uncomfortable: like menstruation and how we get babies. I’m grateful that my kids have been exposed to mating behaviors in our chickens, and have the general concept of male and female coming together to make new babies and that we can’t get baby chicks when we don’t have a rooster. I also try to have my daughters witness menstruation and get a small explanation of what’s going on in my body now, rather than waiting until they are going through it themselves and having a Big Conversation.
Of course, I would prefer that my children did not have to know about same-sex marriage, and child abuse, and divorce, and abortion at all, ever. But they WILL have to know about those things eventually, and I’d rather that it happened in a controlled environment.
I have found that little by little is a much less traumatic way to gain information than completely oblivious to Big Conversation. So, I am comfortable with my children, even my very young children, understanding that some men want to be married to other men or that sometimes people who aren’t married do the “special kind of hug” that God wants only Mommies and Daddies to do together, and so sometimes babies are born without a whole family.
2. The car is absolutely the best place for uncomfortable conversations.
Whenever possible, I’d prefer that the information-gathering be child-led. I am guardedly open in my own conversation, and don’t avoid controversial subjects entirely. My hope is that they put together for themselves a general concept of something, then come to me and ask a question, rather than to sit them down and give them a Big Talk that they might not be interested in.
Most often, our conversations happen in the car. I’m a captive audience for my kids there, plus there’s no eye contact required in car conversations, so that tends to be where my kids ask me things. It also helps that I always wait until we’ve been driving a while to turn on the radio, or CD, or even to start our Rosary. I want to give the kids a chance to bring up anything they’ve been wanting to talk about, controversial or mundane.
It is very, very important to me that my kids feel they can come and talk to me about anything. I want to foster an environment in which we can talk about anything, even evil or immoral things, without feeling that even a conversation about a particular thing would be wrong. I think that my former policy of putting off almost all my son’s questions didn’t help with that.
3. When my kids ask questions, I answer them, but I start very, very small. Often, that’s enough.
When my kids do bring up a touchy subject, it can be tempting to launch into a detailed treatment of that and all related matters. But I have found out through experience that sometimes, all my child wanted was a very small, specific answer. And my broad answer had kinda freaked them out. So now, I start with a small answer, then if the child has follow-up questions, I answer those.
I remember, on a day at the lake from my own childhood, pointing out that one dragonfly was giving another dragonfly a ride. My aunt pointedly explained to me what was really going on with those dragonflies. I remember it so vividly. I really wish she hadn’t.
Sometimes, our kids get exposed to a concept not on our preferred timetable. A parish announcement about child sexual abuse (a friend just went through this one) or a homosexual family member, can sometimes force our hand on discussing issues with our kids. But, again, for our family, I think the best policy has been to address the issue, call it by its name, and only answer the questions my kids actually have about the matter.
I have on occasion been sure a big question was coming only to find my kids hadn’t noticed the situation at all.
4. I try to make these moments lessons in compassion rather than in horror.
When we do have these conversations about abortion, or divorce, or out-of-wedlock births, I try to emphasize how unfortunate the act is and how complicated the effects of the act are, rather than how sinful the person is who is committing the act.
After all, we are all sinners, and I don’t personally find it very helpful to dwell on how much worse other people’s sins are than are my own.
Abortion, for example, is a tragedy for every person involved from the mother and the father and their extended families to the doctors and nurses and cleaning crews at the clinics. I want my children to pray for all of these people. I want them to understand that many people who participate in an abortion feel like they have no other options, or wrongly feel like they are helping a woman. Then we can pray that God will soften their hearts and heal them.
I try to focus on homosexuality and out of wedlock relations as just not God’s plan for us, and not the way to feel happy and fulfilled and connected to God and our fellow man. Also, how inclinations aren’t sinful, only actions.
Again, only you can know what’s right for your particular child.
For me, when my four year old prays for an end to abortion, it feels right that she understands what she’s saying. And if any of my kids want to know what those dragonflies are really up to, I will tell them. But only if they ask.
I'm pretty sure I could've written this post. I've taken almost the exact same approach except that my kids still don't know what abortion is. They haven't asked but we pray every day that babies in their mama's wombs can be healthy and safe. It sounds weird but taking this approach and being laid back and trusting God that it's not all about ME and constructing the perfectly contrived (yet forced) explanation has made me excited to talk with my kids about some of these subjects. It's truth. There's no need to be afraid of it. Thanks for the post.
This is great! It reminds me very much of my childhood and how we, little by little, learned the ways of the world. And oh, the conversations with Mom in the big blue van… I think you're spot on with little answers. I used to teach 4 year old full day preschool, and while I seldom fielded big uncomfortable questions, I do remember that kids would get all glassy eyed when you went into too much detail. They want to know, but they don't want to write a book about it!
I also wish that my children (or any of us for that matter) had to know about things like homosexuality or abortion. For us, we've had circumstances where we've had to talk about these things and we've found that telling them everything gets it out there. Initially it was my husband who wanted to do this and I wanted to not talk about these things at a young age but he brought up a good point: our children are going to find out about these things so it is better that they learn it from us. My brother lives a homosexual lifestyle; they know what that means and why it is sinful. They attend the march for life each year in DC and know exactly what they are marching for. When you think about it, these are the things (birth control, fornication, abortion, homosexuality, etc) that our priests should be preaching about and often. If they were, these conversations would be coming up all the time in many families.
that should be *didn't* have to know
I find our situations so similar. I'm just really glad I found your blog! My oldest is 12 and she was always so inquisitive. I started small answers, but finally, when she was 7 years old, for example, she put her hands on her hips, looked at my swollen, pregnant-with-her-brother belly (our 4th) and say, "Mommy, I know God put the baby in your tummy — what I WANT to KNOW is HOOOOWWWWWW He did that!"
Within the next 18 months, we'd had some conversations (never all at once) and she knew HOW it happened, LOL. As she's gotten older and her body has changed the last 18 months, I've been so glad I never put her off…now her body has started doing things to get ready for her first period and she has discussed the quality of her mucous and stuff with me.
My philosophy has been to be as open and honest as appropriate for their age and maturity. My oldest is mature for her age. But my 2nd daughter is less mature than her peers. I was thinking I should try telling my 2nd daughter about the changes coming to her body and such as her physical maturity is slightly ahead of her peers, but she said, "Mom, I just don't need to know stuff about that — I don't want to grow up" of course, we talked about how she's most likely going to grow up, and there's nothing to be afraid of, but it was interesting to me how different from her older sister she is in that regard.
Sorry…I wrote a book in your combox!! But this post was so fun to read and I like how you showed how you learned over the years. I know I learned something with my kids, too…I just don't know I could articulate it as well as you did your lesson. 🙂
I really appreciated this. We had a situation last year when my two year old was going through a strong phase of wanting to know about people's families – what's your dad's name, what's your mom's name. One of her teachers at day care has two mothers. The day care, to their credit, knowing our religious bent, asked us how they wanted us to handle it, but we didn't really know either! It seemed like not making a big deal about it ("Oh, Teacher Carrie has two moms … why? well, some people just have two moms") was maybe not fully the right way to go on this one. At the same time, she's two, and we weren't sure how we would even begin to phrase it any differently than that. In the end, Teacher Carrie told her she had two moms, and my daughter never asked any more questions about it. But I felt totally unprepared! Thanks for sharing how you guys handle these things.
This is pretty much my way of dealing with these things too Kendra. I think its a good way to combat that huge fear everyone has to "the culture" corrupting our kids and freaking out all the time. I mean, I wish I didn't have to explain why Elton John is on the cover of a magazine with a baby and another man (I haven't had to actually explain that one, but it did pop into my head). I think if we talk about them in simple terms while a child is young and in terms of how God sees these situations and what God wants, it promotes a child's understanding of truth. Because I believe that children really do recognize the morality of these questionable situations and are looking more to how we react and explain them. Their hearts already know, but they do need vocal affirmation of God's attitude towards these things.
Oh, I SO appreciate this. I'm not a mom (yet), but I love your approach.
I believe my parents made the decision to tell us things on a "need to know" basis. My mom and I had one talk about periods when I was 10, and she told what would basically happen. But she didn't really explain it, other than it would strengthen my uterus to have a baby one day. She never told me about mucus or ovulating.
To this day (and I'm in college), my parents never told me about sex. Everything I know came from an anatomy class, the CCC, and NFP blogs. We never discussed homosexuality or abortion – until I got a Facebook account at 16 and started reading articles on my own. They never talked about chastity or dating, or anything like that.
I now look back and am SO thankful I found faithful Catholic websites and blogs to learn from since I could have easily been led astray without having a foundation of these issues from my parents.
All this to say, parents: please don't be afraid. If your kids are anything like me, they might not always ask questions. Don't be afraid to introduce a topic if your child doesn't initiate. I love how you talk about wanting your kids to feel like they can ask you about anything. I didn't have that, and it still makes me sad today. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that my parents – a faithful Catholic couple – never, ever told me about anything. Even though it's awkward and difficult sometimes, I'd much rather have had awkward conversations than to look back sadly with regret for what my parents did.
Thanks for this advice!
This is basically what we do as well….great advice. And, I agree..that answering questions in a small way is much better than doing a BIG TALK all at once.
The other thing I do, is i don't shield them from Catholic radio…where topics like homosexuality and divorce come up. I used to have that on in the car all the time, and sometimes these topics came up (although sometimes, I don't think they really listened to them).
I totally agree with your suggestions but wanted to add what has worked for me. I found that when we went on long walks, they would be a captive audience too but the fact that they were moving and didn't have to be still and look at me, opened them up to talking and asking questions, and kept them from that squirmy stuck in an awkward place feeling. We started that when they were young and now they are older teens and we have a very open relationship! Sometimes I have to hide my shock when they bring up things that I never talked about with my parents but I'm so thankful that they feel it's safe to discuss with me.
Another total gem. My just turned 4 year old asks a lot of questions and we answer incrementally. Thanks, Kendra!
Hi Kendra, and everyone else – I seem be the lone voice (so far) of someone who reads your blog, often find it very interesting and informative, and does not share your faith/belief system including some of the tenets you shared in this post. When I first found your blog years ago, I watched your intro vlog and remember you saying something to the effect that you hope that even if we don’t agree on everything, that doesn’t mean we can’t hang out online. I hope that remains the case! As someone who doesn’t believe as you do, I have many thoughts and questions about ideas in this post – one I can articulate is, how do you understand, and explain to your children, how people should live lifelong if they have inclinations – which you say are not sinful though related actions are – towards homosexuality? For any record, I am a straight women who hopes and prays for her male partner, so it’s not personal to me; I am simply curious about your belief.
The Catholic view of sex is that it is a good and beautiful thing within the confines of marriage. But we don’t view it as something to which anyone is entitled. We are each called to chastity, no matter what. What chastity looks like for a particular person is dependent on his vocation and state in life. And yes, a person with same sex attraction is called to celibacy, despite a desire for sex. But, of course, so would I be if my husband were ill, or incapacitated, or deployed, or incarcerated, or institutionalized. A married person with a vocation to marriage and a partner she loves and a desire for sex might find herself in any one of those situations. And I know it would be a huge challenge, but I also think that though God’s grace, I would be able to manage.
There are celibate gay Catholics around, if you’d like to see their perspective. Eve Tushnet wrote a book a few years back called Gay and Catholic. And Steve Gershom blogs at his own blog and elsewhere, here’s a guest piece he did a while back.
I don’t know how I’m just finding this article, almost 10 years after it was first published!
I agree with much of what you write. I would like to encourage you to reconsider lumping divorce together with child abuse and abortion. Divorce is a civil action and despite how it’s portrayed in some circles, it is *very* often due to domestic violence and coercive control. Divorce does not break up a marriage or a family — but abuse does. Thanks for your consideration and sincere condolences on the passing of your husband.