"Does the Easter bunny exist?"
10:50 (GMT+2), Fri, 30 September 2011
Rule of Thumb
According to Wendela Liesewitz, a clinical psychologist with a background in paediatric nursing, no matter the question, you need to address your child’s concern and answer in child-friendly language. “Where possible, it’s usually best to think of examples that kids can relate to.”
Heidi Janit, a teacher at Little Lulu Preschool and Daycare Centre says, “It’s vital that you never tell your children that they’re not allowed to ask “those” questions. “As a parent, you need to encourage your children to ask questions about their world, no matter how tricky or embarrassing they may be for you. Allowing them to ask these questions encourages them to enquire, learn, grow and gain an understanding and perspective of their world, which can seem confusing and scary for them.”
According to Ken Resnick, educational psychologist well known for his Parenting 911 workshops, while you should never ignore a particularly difficult question, it’s often useful to underplay your response and treat it lightly. “Whatever you tell them, don’t let them pick up on your own anxiety,” he says.
Jenny Perkel is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Cape Town. She’s the author of Babies in Mind and she’s the in-house psychologist for living and loving. She believes you should let your children guide you as far as how much information they really need.
Questions that make parents sweat:
Why did granny die? Are you going to die too?
Wendela: Perhaps you’ve had a pet that has died. You can use this experience to explain that it’s a natural process. If you tell your child that granny is 80 years old and it was her time to go, it’s difficult for the child to understand the concept. Rather explain using concrete things that they can relate to.
What does God look like? Is He real?
Heidi: The way in which you answer this question depends mostly on your own beliefs about God. Remember that children have an innocence in their understanding of God until they’re old enough to fully understand the concept and form their own relationship according to their unique beliefs and experiences. You need to answer them in a gentle, non-threatening way. Keep it simple and say something like, “Yes, God is real. You can imagine Him to look however you want Him to look.”
Why is that man in a wheelchair?
Ken: Before the age of eight or nine, children don’t understand the emotional concepts around disability, and they may react inappropriately by pointing or laughing. Rather than telling them not to stare or that they’re being rude, quietly say something like, “Shame, his legs must be a little bit sore, or he’s very old and his legs are tired.” So much depends on your own reaction to the situation. If you remain calm and don’t make a big issue of it, chances are, your little one will quickly let it go, too.
Why is daddy leaving us?
Wendela: In the case of parents separating, it’s best to be completely honest. Explain the situation, remaining as neutral as possible, and if appropriate, add “feeling” words, for example, say “It’s sad”, so that it’s not just a fact you’re stating; you’re also acknowledging the emotion they’re experiencing, too. You can also encourage your child to come back and ask more if she needs to.
Where do babies come from?
Jenny: Let your child guide you as to how much detail she wants. It could be a trigger for a long, interesting discussion, or perhaps she just wants a one-liner, without too much information. Perhaps you could start by asking her, “Where do you think babies come from?” From there, you can correct any misconceptions (excuse the pun) and say, “A baby comes half from the mommy and half from the daddy. It starts off very small inside the mommy’s tummy and grows and grows until it’s ready to be born, and then the mommy pushes the baby out of her tummy.” Then you can wait for her next question, which might be about the sexual detail or the actual birth. Preschoolers are ready for this information if they ask for it. Don’t be afraid to use real words like “penis”, even if it feels odd talking this way to a child.
Heidi: It’s not necessary to explain the whole biological process of how a baby is made. Younger children will not be able to grasp this. Don’t tell children that the stork brought their baby brother or sister to the house, either! This adds more confusion to something that’s already difficult for them to understand. Be honest – tell your child that Mom and Dad love each other and wanted to make a baby together. This little baby was a tiny seed in mommy’s tummy and it started to grow until it formed a baby. We now live in such a technologically advanced world that we can even show them scans of the baby. Showing your children the scans helps a lot when trying to explain how a baby grows. If you’re pregnant, allow your child to feel the baby moving in your tummy. A book on how babies are made with simple visuals may be helpful here. As your child gets older and the questions become more complex, you can always use this book when answering their more difficult questions.
Why can’t we go on holiday?
Jenny: Although it can be hard on you, your child could feel short-changed when his friends are going on holiday and he isn’t. Envy is a natural, normal part of a child’s repertoire of emotions. Your job is to help him to manage his own feelings of disappointment and sadness about not being able to have the expensive holidays that his friends may have. Tune in to his feelings by saying, “Yes, I can see you really wish we could go away these holidays like Shaun. I wish we could as well. If we had all the money in the world, where would you like to go?” This is not an ideal world where everything always goes the way children want it to. Without carrying guilt about not being able to give your child a holiday, perhaps say, “I’m sorry that we can’t go on holiday, but let’s think of some things we can do here that will be fun. How about …” and you can make a few suggestions about holiday activities that will make your child feel less hard-done-by.
Is the Tooth Fairy/Santa Claus/the Easter bunny real?
Ken: Why would you want to squash children’s fantasies by telling them that these characters aren’t real? Kids love them, and it’s very normal to believe in fantasy figures up until the age of five or six. From the age of seven or eight, they usually come to their own conclusions about what’s real and what’s not. But while they’re still young, let them enjoy it
Dos and don’ts
Here are some pointers to bear in mind when deciding the right approach to handling tricky questions:
• Don’t avoid the question or defer it to the other parent – you don’t have to come up with the perfect answer, but acknowledge their concern even if it means just saying that you’ll think about it for the time being.
• Never be dismissive or belittling, by saying, “Don’t be silly.”
• Remember that how you approach different topics sets the groundwork for how they’ll deal with their own emotional responses as they grow up.
• In many cases, it may be helpful to use picture books with examples. This gives the child visuals, which often makes understanding a lot easier. There are lots of interesting, age-appropriate books about the loss of pets and loved ones, about God, and where babies come from, etc.
• You model for your children what is expected of them. It’s a huge responsibility, but also a wonderful opportunity to give them the best start in life by modelling behaviour such as honesty, not being afraid, being able to deal with emotions, not being ashamed of asking for help, and that you don’t always need to be perfect and know everything.
Remember, you’re only human, too, and you’re still learning yourself. Do the best you can, and if you’re not sure, there are many sources of help available.