How to Have Tough Conversations with Your Kids
We have all been shaken to the core this past year. So shaken that we might even freeze up, lash out, or run away whenever we encounter challenges related to civil rights, the pandemic, politics, relationships, or parenting. We might be able to dodge hard topics on social media or with acquaintances, but what about the tough questions being asked right in your own home? By your children, no less.
My brain has nearly exploded with the complicated task of addressing topics of racism, sexuality, neurological diversity, body autonomy, mask wearing, pandemic reentry, bullying, and differences in family values with my young kids (ages 2.75 and newly 7).
How do I help them understand these complex and polarized issues?
How do I find the time and space to educate myself enough to talk about these topics confidently?
What do I do when I don't know the answer?
We can no longer rely on the clipped answers of "that is just the way it is" or "ask Alexa." As parents, we are shaping our global future with how we treat and talk to our children, starting at day one.
So many dizzying questions with less than solid answers....and I hate that! I reflexively went on a hunt for the "perfect" way of responding to challenging questions. Was I successful? Did I find the infallible approach?
I did however, learn some valuable lessons during my quest.
Lesson 1: There is not a perfect approach. There are just variations of good, better, and best responses.
Mama, there will be days were you hit it out of the park. You will curate a comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, and genuine response to a on the spot. Bonus if you can tell that you made an impact on your kid and their eyes didn't glaze over mid-sentence. On those days, you can pat yourself on the back and celebrate! Those are the best of times.
Other times, though, it won't be as jubilant. This is the opportunity to meet yourself exactly where you are at and respond with the most human answer you can muster. Starting with humility, "mommy is trying to figure that out, too." Transition to what you can come up with regarding their question, "But, here is what I know so far...." and then give a 1-2 sentence answer.
Lesson 2: It is okay to say "I don't know."
I so wish I was a walking google search engine, but I'm not. I know a lot about a few things (how to cook stellar scrambled eggs, emotional sensitivity, childbirth, and the Krebs cycle) For other topics, I usually only know the headlines of important issues. I have to dig deep into research to finish the article. Thus, my common response to my kids is, "Good question babe! I have no idea. Let's look for the answer together."
I used to feel a wave of anxiety when my bright eyed and eager children were looking to me to answer prolific (although probably just simple to them) questions. Now I give myself a ton of permission to not know and be curious with them. Often we will find a book, TV show, or YouTube clip that helps us answer the question.
Lesson 3: Simple, to the point, and in alignment with your values
Most kids, and adults for that matter, handle simple, consistent, and repetitive messages best. Kids also like certainty and predictability. When we respond reliably and straightforward to complicated questions, our kids can digest that information easier than a if they get a frazzled, over-explained answer. How can you as their parent achieve this?
Pause and reflect on your answer and circle back to your kids at a later time. This way you give yourself space to examine how you really feel about it and create a developmentally appropriate response to their question.
When you do respond, stick to one to three sentence answers. Younger kids need small bites of food so they don't choke. It is the same with information consumption. If the chink of information is too big, it is too hard for them to mentally swallow. You may say, "but I can't possibly explain all the details of these important topics in a few sentences!" You are right! AND this is not going to be the one and only time you will be asked this question. You will have plenty of opportunities as your kids grow to hit the various parts of their big question. For now, just stick with simple and easy so they do not get overwhelmed.
Lesson 4: Show, don't tell
A great way to continue crucial conversations is to show (model) how you learn and access your answers. Let them see you reading a book, looking up information, or having calm conversations with your partner, friends, or family.
Lesson 5: Model making mistakes
I love this one! Failure is as much a part of the learning process as success. You have to be willing to hit the low points if you are ever going to hit the high points. Put learning first and getting it right second. Model resilience and empowerment to your children by letting them see your mistakes and how you handle them. Try being silly or let them know when something isn't coming naturally to you but you will continue to try. Avoid criticism of yourself in front of your children (and at all). Show grace and kindness to yourself when you screw up and let your children see you rise back up and try again.
I hope this post helps you navigate the murky waters of having conversations centered around challenging topics with your young children. You may have recognized that you are already doing amazing and to not second guess yourself. Alternatively, if you have avoided these discussions - like me - these lessons make it a little easier.
Comment below about your experiences with having tough convos with your young children. Tell us the real stuff! The good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious!