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Handling Your Child's Mature Questions

As children get older, the questions they pose and the answers offered, get more and more complicated. If you find yourself groping blindly for an appropriate response, you aren’t alone. How you respond is important, not because what you say has to be perfect, but because how you say it can greatly shape not only how the child understands the subject being broached, but also the relationship you share.

So what’s a parent to do when the questions get harder and the answers don’t come so readily? Mom Lori Lunz has had many conversations with her 6-year-old biological daughter about the son their family adopted as a newborn. Even though it’s been more than a year since he arrived, Lunz still finds her daughter perplexed by the idea that she is indeed his mother.

“She has asked me more than once, how can I think that I’m his real mom if he didn’t come out of my body,” says Lunz.  “That’s what really makes you the real mom, right?” her daughter will say.
Lunz’s daughter’s literal approach to information is typical of children around that age.  Dr. George Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University explains that because of the cognitive ability of children around the ages of 6-8 years old, they adhere to pretty rigid categories for people and things. “They like to have very black and white distinctions. It is how their brain is helping them make sense of the world,” says Holden. As children grow, this limited understanding evolves, and so do the nature and complexity of the questions they ask.

How parents answer questions early on lays the framework for future discussions throughout adolescence and beyond. Dr. Arminta Jacobson, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Texas and co-editor of Wisdom for Parents: Key Ideas from Parent Educators, encourages parents to employ a “stop, look, and listen” approach to the questions children ask. “Pay attention to them and postpone everything else if you have to. Get close to them, and look at them and look at their body language and really listen to their tone of voice. Really listen to what they are saying and ask probing questions.” 

Holden and Jacobson stress the importance of creating an environment that promotes open communication, even if it means admitting you don’t know the answer. When Carlos Phillips and his wife divorced, they never talked about how they would discuss their separation with their two children, then ages 2 and 6. His boys were 7 and 11 when they asked him, “Why did you and mom get a divorce anyway?”

Phillips, who went on to write a book and start a Christian ministry for the divorced called Healed Without Scars, says that the question gave him pause.

 “I was struggling to figure out the answer to that question myself. It was hard for me to verbalize to them, and to answer frankly what I didn’t fully comprehend myself.”

Jacobson says that is perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know,” or “That’s a great question, let me think about that,” if that is the truth. You don’t always have to have an immediate response. Answers don’t have to be complete or perfect either.

Sometimes kids ask questions that seem bigger than they are, but they are never too young to have their question answered. A well placed “Tell me a little more about what led you to ask that question,” may reveal a desire for an answer to a much simpler question than originally asked. “As long as children don’t feel like there is something they need to worry about or that they can’t know about, they are usually satisfied with the answers provided,” says Jacobson.

As for your responses being infallible? Don’t worry if you don’t give the ideal response the first time. When children know they can ask a question, you can be sure that they will ask again … and again.