Sex, Death, and Ebola

Children are sponges. Curious, curious sponges that ask a lot of questions.

Remember, children don’t realize that their curiosity could put you in an awkward position. They have questions, and they trust you, an adult-type person in their life, to have answers. Whether it be about sex, death, or the latest news, sometimes a question is going to pop out of a child’s mouth that you wish you could ignore. You can always try distracting them with ice cream, but I guarantee you: they will happily get ice cream with you. Then they are going to circle back to that question, probably until they get an answer.

Here are some guidelines for dealing with those pesky questions, from “Where do babies come from?” to “Do I have to worry about catching Ebola?”

1. Don’t panic. Children, like most other animals, can smell fear. If you panic, you are inviting them to attack you (with more questions) or you will inspire fear and panic in them too.

Stay calm. Take a deep breath, and think about what you want to say. If the child chooses to ask more questions in that pause, raise a finger and say something like, “Just a minute. I’m going to answer your question, but I want to think of the best answer for you.”

2. Try not to get defensive. Don’t fire questions back: “Where did you hear that??” “Who told you that?” “Why would you say something like that?” This will shut off communication. If they think they are going to get someone in trouble, they will shut down. Children don’t like getting people in trouble (unless it is one of their siblings). The secondary effect is that they will either seek out another adult, and the message will be out of your hands, and/or they will seek out their friends, and the message will not only be out of your hands, but also possibly incorrect.

3. Be honest. Don’t make stuff up. Don’t guess. If you don’t know, say, “You know what? I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s look it up.” VET YOUR SOURCE IF YOU GO THIS ROUTE ON THE INTERNET.

4. Be age-appropriate and child-appropriate. This is probably the trickiest step (after don’t panic). The information that a 5-year-old can take in is different from what a 10-year-old can absorb. And one 10-year-old may be a little more sophisticated than another 10-year-old in terms of vocabulary or causal effect. (By the teens, they probably aren’t asking you questions anymore, which is another reason you should try to answer them now.)

5. Finally, try to anticipate follow-up questions. Know where it is okay to draw the line, and say, “You need to be a little older before we discuss that.”

The upshot is that children trust adults. We serve them best when we give them honest answers and treat their concerns and curiosity as valid, and not something to be avoided or laughed at. Or, worse, scorned. If your child is afraid of contracting Ebola because it’s all the media is talking about, assure them the likelihood is extremely low. If they are old enough explain why in simple terms.

What innocent question from children usually has you running for the hills?

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