Sometimes I can still feel the lump that swelled in my throat when she asked the question.
At that moment, I can’t even remember breathing. I desperately wanted to duck into the closet and turn off all the lights. I mean, how on earth do you answer a question like that? Truthfully, I didn’t even really know the answer. It’s not such a black and white issue. I found myself wishing that I would never again be asked such a question, but that’s one wish that will never come true.
You see, kids are black and white. And kids ask hard questions. Like…
“Mommy, why did daddy leave you?”
“Mommy, why aren’t you friends with Mrs. Johnson anymore?”
“Why is my friend in the hospital?”
“Why does daddy yell at you?”
“Why did Mrs. Miller have to die of cancer?”
“Why are we shopping for food at the church?”
“Why doesn’t that woman have legs?”
“Why couldn’t you and daddy stay married?”
“Didn’t he love me enough to stay?”
“Why can’t we afford to go to the amusement park?”
“Why doesn’t my best friend’s dad live with him?”
“Why does granddaddy say so many bad words?”
“Why did daddy lose his job?”
“Why didn’t my mom love me enough to keep me?”
“Why can’t I play soccer like the other kids?”
(Disclaimer: these are not necessarily exact questions that my own children have asked!)
The list goes on and on. In fact, I’m sure you can add a few of your own from whatever trials you have faced.
So what are we to do? We definitely can’t speak badly about other people (no–there is no exception clause for an ex-husband who hurt you or a best friend who has grown distant). We all have our own sins, so we can’t go about smearing the sins of others. It will only make a bigger mess. We also can’t assume we understand someone else’s circumstances or the true reason behind their actions.
I’ll be honest, I’ve floundered around with this issue. I’ve had moments when questions came that I totally could NOT answer without saying something mean about another person or God, so I ignored them. I’ve had moments when things just came out the wrong way. And I’ve had more moments than I’d like to admit where I just desperately didn’t want to tell the truth about the matter.
Maybe you can relate to some of my unhealthy “strategies.” In fact, psychologists say that most people use them.
Lying is one of the most frequent ways that people try to solve the quandary of difficult questions like the ones asked above. The truth is, it’s easier than facing the reality of some situations. Plus, we assume that the children simply can’t see or don’t know the truth. That is a very bad assumption to make. Child development experts say that children are keen on picking up even the slightest upset or irregularity in the home. My experience has proven this true. I’ve been shocked so many times when my children understood a fact or detail about a situation that I totally wouldn’t have guessed they even knew about, much less could understand.
While it is tempting to avert a difficult conversation by lying, you can see that it probably won’t protect them from anything. In fact, it almost always backfires on the parent, making us seem untrustworthy. That’s the last thing we want when life is already hard.
So, quite clearly these unhealthy “strategies” are off the table. We need a good solid plan for fielding these questions so we can help point our children to God in the process. It will be hard but the benefit will be worth it. If we teach our children to allow God to use these times to help us grow, they will be able to do that for themselves one day when they are on their own!
So let’s focus on what we can say to point them to Him instead of how we can get out of an uncomfortable situation (preaching to the choir on that one- ahem).
How to Talk to Your Kids About Life’s Trials
We have 4 options ===>
1. Tell them the truth
Of course telling the truth is an option here. Seems silly that we have to say this, but sometimes we think that we can’t tell the truth to our kids in a hard situation. We just need to remember to tell the truth in a way that is appropriate for their age AND in a way that removes feelings as much as possible.
My motto is, “Always tell the truth, but NEVER share the gory details.” Stick with the facts, especially if you are dealing with an issue that affects another person. Like I said above, we don’t want to assume anything about another person (even if you know some of those things to be true). For example, if you are talking to a child who was adopted it would NOT be ok to say, “Your birth mom was a no-good crack addict who didn’t care about you.”
Maybe that is true, but it’s not all fact. It would be more appropriate to say, “Your birth mom struggled with drugs. They can really affect the way a person thinks.” But remember, if you are talking to a 3-year-old, you probably aren’t even going to get into the whole drug thing. Perhaps just say, “Your birth mom wasn’t able to take care of you and wanted you to have someone like me to help you and love you.”
See the difference? You didn’t lie. You just didn’t smear the ugly truth all over their face. And that’s a good thing. Don’t forget, it’s also totally ok to say, “I don’t know” or “there isn’t a clear answer to this question” if that is the truth.
2. Hold it for later
This is a strategy that my sweet friend used a lot when her 10-year-old son was diagnosed with brain cancer. There were so many questions that he had and that his siblings had that she “held for later.” There were unknowns about his prognosis and life expectancy. Unknowns about the causes and even treatments. She would tell them, “That is a good question, but I’m going to hold the answer to that question for you until later. Sometimes mommies need to do this to protect their children from grown-up things that are too difficult to understand.”
I’ve used this strategy a lot myself and find it so helpful. I don’t want to find myself engaged in a conversation that is truly not appropriate for my kids. Remember what I said above, we can only tell them the truth in an age-appropriate way. Telling a child that he is probably going to die at age 10 is not going to help anyone get through the treatments, surgeries, or battle to even fight for his life.
Oh, and this one is probably something you need to use a lot if you are walking through a divorce. Just be careful not to fall into #4.
3. Put the question back in their lap
This is one of my favorite tactics. For example, if my children say, “Mom, is it ok to wear short shorts?” I will almost always give the question back to them by saying something like, “Hmm…what do you think the Bible says about that?” Or if it’s not something the Bible addresses, “What do you think?”
This gives you tons of insight into what they are thinking about life, too. Trust me, it’s a question you want to ask often to see how they are processing a particular trial. It also takes the pressure off of you to answer things sometimes. Just be careful that you don’t let them answer it in an untrue way and then leave it there. We don’t want them to believe lies about the situation.
4. Avoid the question
This is my least favorite method. It’s the one my mom took most often. She didn’t want to talk about what happened with my dad, so she avoided it all the time. I now understand that often that was because she was biting her tongue. (Walking through a similar experience really enlightens you.) But I still found myself as a child making conclusions about things that probably needed clearer answers.
For example, if a child asks, “Why did daddy leave?” and the question goes unanswered, guess what they assume? You guessed it. Suddenly the child blames themself. Daddy left because they weren’t lovable or because they were bad. This kind of assumption can go on into adulthood and cause very serious issues for the child. So be very careful not to just avoid stuff like this. Same goes for the death of a sibling or parent. It WILL become their fault in their minds if they can’t figure out another reason or cause.
So, are we never to avoid the question? Never say never. I do avoid questions. But only for a time. For example, in the middle of the grocery store is probably not the right time to talk about why daddy lost his job. Not only is it a public place, I also want the opportunity to answer without being distracted.
Another reason to avoid the question is to give yourself time to think. I do this more and more as my girls are nearing the teen years. I know that what I say shapes the way they think about things and I want to be very intentional with that. Just remember to come back to the question at a more appropriate time.
And if you get nothing else out of this post, please don’t miss this fact. ===> The Bible is our source for truthful information.
As my children ask me if something is okay or what I think about a particular situation, I always point them to the Bible. Not only am I not really authorized to make that call on the behavior of other people, but most importantly, I want them to understand that the real truth is in God’s word. Anything I say is fallible. Same with every other human being.
Not to mention, God has the answers to every single one of their questions even when all of our human answers fall short. We don’t ever want to lose sight of that!