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When Very Young Children Ask Very Hard Questions

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 12/12/2011 10:18 am Updated: 01/31/2012 2:20 pm

Tara Crean's four-year-old daughter loves books. On the weekly family trip to the library she chooses a stack bigger than she can carry, and delights in them at bedtime every night.

Tara delights in that delight. But every so often a book can't be judged by its cover -- or by a quick scan in the library, or even the input of the librarian. And then she has a problem -- one she has asked that I share with readers.

How to respond when a child stumbles onto a subject that they aren't really ready to understand? (Hayley Krischer asks a similar question -- in her case she struggled with explaining pepper spray at UC Davis to her 8-year-old -- in a blog post today that you can read here.) And how to keep that child -- can you possibly? -- from heading off to school and sharing what they aren't ready for with all their friends.

Here's how she explained it in an email to me:

On our weekly trip to the library I got a book for my daughter by an author she liked previously -- Patricia Polacco. Lo and behold what first seemed to be a story about moving, turned out to be a story about the Holocaust. Maybe I should have stopped reading -- my husband thinks that's what I should have done -- but I didn't, and now she is obsessed with the whys.

I tried to answer only what she asked, but also not lie. That has led to some uncomfortable moments at home because my husband tried to imply that this happened in the time of the dinosaurs, when I had already told her the truth, and that relatives of his had died. It has also led to some complications at school, because she brought the book as a transition object (I know, other kids have lovies, my kid has books.) We did warn the teachers that this was not for reading aloud to the group -- something we have had to do with other books that referred to death (which we are okay with as literary content but some parents wouldn't be) or heaven (same thing) or religion (I am not sure I want someone else explaining my religion to my child.)

That's one of the things that concerns me -- the reality that she is now able to "explain" things to classmates that their parents might consider too soon or not appropriate. She was extremely moved by the idea, for instance, that within her grandparents' lifetime children of color were not allowed to use the same water fountain or library books; but I suspect her classmates of color have been "protected" from this information -- what if she said something? Or what if she starts talking to her Jewish classmates about people being killed because they were Jewish?

Can you tell a child not to talk about certain things? In a way we have already done that with certain words, by explaining that while she has (I confess) heard her parents curse that she will offend others or hurt their feelings if she uses some expressions outside the family. But putting a whole topic off limits around others feels like a different matter. On other topics we have realized it's impossible. Like the time she told the child of a lesbian couple that of course he had a father, because he was made from sperm and it had to come from somewhere. (When that happened we quietly explained that their mommies didn't want to tell them that yet, but we didn't come down on her like a ton of bricks because, um, she was kind of right). She is also on the verge of figuring out there is no Santa -- trying to calculate how fast he would have to go to visit all children on same night (we plan to tell her not to spoil the magic for others).

But the Holocaust is not cuss words and it's not Santa. And if she keeps reading the way she is, and asking questions like she does, there are likely to be other subjects that she may well to too young to know about and is probably too young to be explaining to her peers. Right now my approach is to continue to read books at home, and cross my fingers and hope doesn't mention things like this.

So, WWYD? I am sure I am not the first parent in this boat -- some of you must tell your kids more about sex than their peers or something, right? So how do you handle it?

Okay, I'll start.

Tara, I think you're right that most children at preschool will not yet have learned about the Holocaust. But I also suspect there are things those kids will have learned -- or overheard, or figured out -- that your daughter knows nothing about either. Some days it seems as if that's what preschool is FOR: so that your kids can come home and ask you about something Jimmy or Janey said that you had no intention of talking about quite yet.

So you might as well give up on controlling that part -- and with it the worry that your child will somehow be the (only) bearer of complicated news at circle time. Then you get to practice the calm, this-doesn't-faze-me-and-I-am-not-at-all-uncomfortable tone that you are going to be trying on often over the next decade or more. As Willow Bay, senior editor here at the Huffington Post, and the author of "Talking to Your Kids in Tough Times: How to Answer Your Child's Questions About The World We Live In" stressed when I put your question to her, the first rule of those conversations is to only answer what you are being asked. Because sometimes you aren't being asked what you think they are asking (for instance, did your daughter bring up the question of relatives of hers who were victims of the Nazi's or did you?)

During all these kinds of talks with my boys I have found myself remembering a story, which was first told to me by a friend who was struggling with how to tell her son that he was conceived via IVF. "Do you bring that up the first time he asks how babies are born?" she asked Then she passed me this gem:

Little Johnny comes home from preschool and says "Mommy, where did I come from?" Mommy takes a deep breath and tells her boy all about when a man and woman love each other very much, and sperm and egg, and penis and vagina. Johnny listens, thinks, and then says: "Oh, that's neat, my friend Charlie says he comes from Chicago."
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