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When Kids Ask the Tough Questions

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Children ask a lot of questions. When they first begin to talk, most of the questions are pretty straightforward and have a single, right answer. What’s that? Who is that? Where’s Mama? 


As our children become more verbal and enter school, the questions get more difficult. Sometimes these harder questions can make even the most informed parents feel like we don’t know anything. Do parents have to be scientists, philosophers, historians, mathematicians, sex educators, astronomers, and all-around experts on everything? Of course not, but that doesn’t help with the feelings and attitudes that these questions raise in our minds and hearts as parents.


We cannot attempt to predict all the tough questions children will ask, but we can figure out where to find the answers that feel right for our family when they ask them.


Homework Helpers


How do you spell prestidigitation?
Even if you’ve never heard of this SAT vocabulary word that means “sleight of hand used in performing magic tricks,” chances are you have a dictionary at home. If not, your public library reference librarian is a good person to befriend. While it’s no substitute for looking a word up in the pages of a thick, hardcover dictionary, there are also reputable online versions:



How do you figure out the square root of 67?
While it may be tempting to say, “Go ask your math teacher,” you may not want to give up that easily. If you seem to have misplaced your middle school math memory banks, there are several Web sites that are designed to help parents help their children with homework, without doing it for them.


  • AAAmath provides comprehensive, interactive math lessons, divided by grade level from Kindergarten through the eighth grade.
  • Math Stories won’t help you figure out the square root of a number but it does provide a plethora of math word problems designed to help children in elementary and middle school boost their math problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
  • Factmonster.com/mathmoney is an almanac-style Web site that includes sample problems and games for a variety of math and money topics.


What is air made of? What is inside water?
Science-related questions can stump even the most educated of parents. Thank goodness for the Web! Check out these helpful, kid-friendly science sites:


  • National Geographic is a fabulous resource for science, history, geography, and even art.
  • Yahoo Kids’ Science lets kids look up science-related words, get homework help, watch videos about scientific mysteries, and even hear science jokes.
  • PBS.org/wgbh/nova/teachers/resources/subject, from the producers of NOVA, is a rich Web site with interactive science activities for students divided by topics covered on this PBS television series. 
  • BrightHorizons.com/growing/scientists, a portion of the Bright Horizons Growing Web site, has great ideas for activities children and their parents can do at home.


This is a great book for answering your child’s science and nature questions:


  • Why?:The Best Ever Question and Answer Book About Nature, Science, and the World Around You, by Catherine Ripley and Scot Ritchie


Anatomy and Sex Questions


With more and more of our children’s idols in the media, questions about anatomy and sex can be a challenge. Depending on the age of your children and your comfort level with discussing these topics, answers can be varied but should always be truthful.


Why doesn’t my sister’s/brother’s body look like mine How does she/he go pee-pee?
Most child educators and safety experts agree that it’s a good idea to use the correct terms for body parts when you explain to your child that boys and girls are different and what those differences are. If you aren’t comfortable saying “penis” and “vagina” out loud, you may want to get comfortable before talking to your child. When you can do it with a straight face, you’re ready. If not, your child will certainly sense your discomfort and may pick the most inopportune time to practice these new vocabulary words in an effort to unnerve you. 


Explain what private parts are and what body privacy means. While children are young, parents should teach their children that private parts are private and that nobody else should touch them. This is also a good time to let children know that they should come to you or another trusted adult if anyone does try to touch their private parts.


Where do babies come from? How did the baby get in your belly? What are you and Daddy doing with the door closed?
In a perfect world, talking about sex with our children would be just another topic, like hygiene, math, or sports. We don’t live in a perfect world, however, so conversations about sex can cause a lot of discomfort and anxiety—mostly for the parents. Take a deep breath, and follow these simple tips:


  • Ask your child “What do you think?” before answering questions to get a better sense of what he is really asking and what he’s likely to understand. Remember the story of the five-year-old who asked his mother, “Where did I come from?” After a long explanation of “Mommy and Daddy loved each other and decided to have a baby,” and then a description about baby making, the child responded candidly, “Well, my friend Stephen came from Florida.” It always helps to understand the child’s questions and current thinking before trying to educate them
  • Tell the truth. If you make up a story about storks or fairies, it will only cause confusion and mistrust later on. 
  • Avoid too much detail. Keep answers short and simple. If your child is not satisfied with your answers, she will ask more questions. 
  • Make conversations matter-of-fact. When discussing body functions and sex with children, try to treat the conversations as we would any other important topic, calmly and matter-of-factly. Children are perceptive, and they will be able to tell if we are uncomfortable with the topic of sex. If children sense that we are uncomfortable or avoid the topic of sex, they may be less likely to come to us with problems and questions later on.
  • Be available. One of the best rules of parenting is to spend relaxed time together and have lots of conversations. Let your child know in words and actions that you are available to offer information and answer questions about sex or anything else, for that matter.
  • Initiate “teachable moment” conversations about sex. Use everyday occurrences as opportunities to discuss sex. When our children are young, we can use diaper-changing or potty time to point out and name the genitalia and other body parts.
  • Timing is everything. If a question about sex comes up in the doctor’s office or in the line at the bank, don’t be afraid to say, “What a good question! Let’s talk about that at home later.” Then, bring it up again at home so your child knows you aren’t avoiding the conversation.


Here are some excellent books to help you talk to your child about sex:


  • It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley (For children ages four to eight)
  • Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid They’d Ask: The Secrets to Surviving Your Child’s Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens, by Justin Richardson and Mark A. Schuster
  • It’s OK to Talk About Sex: A Guide for Parents of Newborns through Adolescence, by Jane Carney Schulze and Rolf Schulze
  • What’s the Big Secret?: Talking about Sex with Girls and Boys, written by Laurie Krasny Brown and illustrated by Marc Brown
  • Let’s Talk About S-E-X: A Guide for Kids 9 to 12 and Their Parents, by Sam Gitchel and Lorri Foster
  • A Chicken’s Guide to Talking Turkey with Your Kids About Sex, by Dr. Kevin Leman and Kathy Flores Bell


Philosophical Questions


So, you figured out where to go for homework help, and you survived the first conversations about sex. Now it’s time to discuss some of the toughest questions of all—philosophical questions about values and beliefs that have many possible answers. 


Is God real? What does God look like? If I’m not allowed to hurt my friends, why is it okay to kill a chicken to eat it? What is a war? Am I safe? Will I be attacked?
Obviously, every family could have different answers to these questions. Our background and values will determine how we answer these questions for ourselves and what information we want to convey to our children. But what if we don’t know the answers ourselves? 


Some parents may feel uncomfortable and want to either change the subject or brush the question off with a dismissive remark like “Never mind. That’s a grown-up question.” Other parents use these tough questions as an opportunity to examine their own beliefs and, depending on the age of their children, discuss these issues as a family. Like with questions about sex, it can be helpful to ask our child, “What do you think?” Not only will it send her the message that her thoughts matter to us, it will let her know that we are open to discussion. 


There are endless books that cover these “what do we believe?” kind of questions. Consult other like-minded parents to get suggestions or explore the parenting section of your library or bookstore. If you are a religious or spiritual person, you may also want to consult with your church, synagogue, mosque, or other spiritual community to find information aimed at answering children’s questions about God and the afterlife.


The following general resources may be helpful to you as you explore your family’s answers to some of these larger questions:


  • Talking with Your Child About a Troubled World, Lynne Dumas, NY: Fawcett, 1992
  • The Bear Essentials: Everything Today’s Hard-Pressed Parent Needs to Know About Bringing Up Happy, Healthy Kids, by Jan Berenstain and Stan Berenstain
  • How to Talk to Your Kids About Really Important Things: Specific Questions and Answers and Useful Things to Say, by Charles E. Schaefer and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo
  • Philosophy for Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder … About Everything!, by David A. White
  • What Happened to the World? a guide to helping children cope in turbulent times including terrorism and war, written by Jim Greenman, Senior Vice President of Education and Program Development for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, following the tragic events of September 11
  • What Happened to MY World? Helping Children Cope with Natural Disaster and Catastrophe. This guide was also written by Jim Greenman after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005


For additional resources to assist in answering your children’s difficult questions, please visit:


  • About Our Kids is a NYU Child Study Center Web site that publishes articles for parents about a variety of tough questions children ask.
  • Talking with Kids, a national initiative by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation, encourages parents to talk with their children earlier and more often about difficult issues.
  • BrightHorizons.com/talktochildren, a Bright Horizons micro site, offers publications that may be of interest to parents answering tough questions.

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