Can Kids Really Handle Difficult Questions?

We live in strange times, no doubt, and all the strangeness gets broadcast pretty widely. There are quite a few posts and articles that advise “How to Talk To Your Kid About…”, and rightfully so. We want to raise a generation of thinkers who are not only aware of the world around them, but who also have the vocabulary and thinking skills to talk about it with sensitivity and insight. Still, one has to wonder if there are questions and issues that are just too much for someone who is relatively new to the planet, and parents have every right to want to shelter their kids from some things.

Here’s some good news, amidst a sea of not-so-good news: you can talk to your kids about difficult, somewhat disturbing things without having them come across as quite so difficult or disturbing.

Here’s how:

  • Start early. Don’t wait for something shocking to pop up in a news feed or on television to start a discussion about something important.
  • Never shy away from a question a child asks, even if it is difficult and doesn’t have one clear answer. Whether they’re curious about world events, or just an abstract idea, they need to feel that they’re free to ask, and that their point of view is important. It’s truly surprising how even very young children are unafraid to tackle something difficult.
  • Focus on big, general questions, instead of on particular current events or stories in the media. You’ll probably find that your child is eager to chat about what makes someone powerful, what it means to be fair, or why they should respect others. Let abstract concepts drive the conversation, and if it drifts into specific events later on, so be it. You can then remind them of the discussion you had before, and see how their previous ideas apply.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer. Whether you’re discussing philosophical questions on a “what if” basis, or you’re tackling an actual, real-world issue with your child, not having a clear answer isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a pretty useful starting point for a discussion. Tell your child that people have been asking this sort of question for thousands of years, and that they’re now continuing an important tradition.
  • Recognize that it isn’t exposure to difficult questions that will build your child’s thinking skills, but the process by which you navigate through them. A child who is curious about war, poverty, or other difficult issues isn’t going to bring them up just once. They’ll continue to mull them over for years, and will build on previous discussions. Teach them to reason well, and leave the door open.
  • If something feels too big to discuss with your child, find an age-appropriate example of it from their daily lives. Perhaps a national election is beyond the scope of their understanding, but they’ll get what it feels like to choose a team leader in gym class, or to be entrusted with a solo in choir. In many ways, what we encounter in childhood is a microcosm of our lives as adults.
  • Praise your child for being a big thinker, and congratulate yourself for creating an environment that welcomes discussion. In our “post-truth” era, thinking skills are invaluable. To quote a Malay proverb “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”

Brace yourself. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Even the most idyllic childhood isn’t all unicorns and chocolate chip cookies. However, with the right approach, difficult questions can serve as important learning opportunities, not to mention a chance to bond with your child.