On Telling My Kids the Truth

Written by NPN Guest on May 17th, 2012

Balance, Natural Learning, Parenting Philosophies

As our children’s capacity for learning grows, our parenting philosophy must evolve in turn. My parenting motto lately is to tell my almost-four-year-old daughter the truth, even in the face of challenging questions. I’m learning that I can’t avoid any question with an inquisitive child around, so I am embracing her thirst for knowledge and making an attempt to answer every question she asks. I say every question with hesitation because there are a few but’s to that statement. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Vivi asks zillions of questions on a daily basis. Her curious nature is a positive trait that will serve her well in her life, so I nurture her desire to learn. Sometimes I become frustrated at hearing “Why?” dozens of times in a day, and “Why?” occasionally becomes a tic that she asks automatically without thinking. I am focused on getting to the root of what she wants to know by responding to the “Whys” with “What would you like to know?” and encouraging her to construct more direct questions.

After reading NurtureShock, I’ve gradually developed a pattern of trust with Vivi, so she knows she won’t ever get in trouble for telling me the truth; as a result, her fibbing seems to have almost completely ceased. I want to develop a relationship that encourages her to ask any and all questions she might be thinking. I want her also to consider me a source of information, not of euphemisms and “Ummm’s.” I want her not to ask me about sex. Yet.

Even without the big S talk, I’m learning that direct questions can migrate into other challenging ones. It isn’t always easy to craft an honest, thoughtful response. Adding another challenging element, most of her questions come on the fly, like when I’m walking across a parking lot, juggling groceries, a toddler, an umbrella, and my keys.

“Is God a boy or a girl?”

“Why does everyone in Annie say shut up so much if it’s such a bad word?”

“When are we going to get another baby?”

“What does it mean when someone dies?”

When she asks me a difficult question, I bristle and automatically want to change the subject, but I always first ask myself what would be the purpose in skirting the answer. I’ve developed a list of potential reasons not to answer her, and it is a short list:

  1. The information has the capacity to increase her anxiety level without probability of a good lesson to be learned. This is a lesson from Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. For example, I choose not to discuss the details of global warming, war, and natural disasters with her. Ditto our family’s finances.
  2. The information has the capacity to hurt others if I don’t shush or ignore her. For example, I run head-down out of the room when she yells “Why is that man so big?” or “Why didn’t that lady say ‘Excuse me’ when she burped?” (I don’t really run. It’s more of a slink).

Before I answer, I find out why she’s asking the question (it may tell you what she really wants to know), and I ask her what she already knows about the subject (you might be surprised at the answer). My basic guidelines in my explanations are to keep my response simple, short, and honest but age-appropriate.

My truthiness with Vivi is extending into our talk of human anatomy. For example, the baby does not grow “in Mommy’s tummy” but in her womb. I am throwing talk of hoohas, ginees, and pee pees out the window (hello, accidental Lorena Bobbitt reference). When you have a toddler, you can get away with calling a belly button a “bee bo,” a stomach a “tummy,” and such. Baby talk only happens once in your life, so live it up! Toddlers can’t say most words correctly, so I’d prefer my 18 month old can tell me her stomach hurts without having to navigate a challenging word.

Having said that, for how long should that baby talk continue? And for what purpose? When I realized I couldn’t answer that question without using words like tradition and decorum, I knew I had made my decision to use anatomically correct words. Is this a feminist decision or just a practical one? I do not know, but I do wonder the following: What would be the point in my admonishing Vivi for saying her vagina hurt instead of her “lady bits”? It’s not a four-letter word, after all.

Mind you, if she shouts it in a room full of people, we’ll have a separate discussion in which I teach her that she can pull me aside for talk of our bodily functions and private parts. By the way, I feel the same about her announcing loudly that she has a booger on her finger, which is one of her favorite things to shout at the present time. Let’s not share it with the world, okay sweetie?

I’m not going too overboard with my methodology; for instance, I’m not going to tell her she needs to call a booger “mucus.” I won’t be asking Vivi if she needs to “defecate” or “urinate.” Folks, there’s no need to take this philosophy to the extreme. I can’t see the point in using such formal language, especially when she can’t say those words without a struggle anyway. At three years old, we’re still at the age where she needs to get the point across quickly. When you gotta go . . . well, you know.

A while back, Vivi asked me to pinpoint the exact location of heaven. I chuckle at the seemingly unique problem solving skills she possesses for a three-year-old. I appreciate the questions like “Where is heaven?” because I can always just say “Where do you think heaven is?,” and usually my counter-question causes the conversation to veer off down some or other tangent. Perhaps I needn’t be overly concerned with how detailed my explanations are, when I consider Vivi’s only just reached the age where she attempts to put together an explanation for her own behavior.

What are your experiences with handling difficult questions? Do you attempt to be frank and honest, or do you feel like it’s your role as a parent in the information age to guard your children from learning too much too fast?

Yours in candid lady-parts discussions,


Justine is an urban homesteader, a minimalist mom, a writer, and a doula-in-training living with her husband and two young girls in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is passionate about sustainable living, health, frugality, and her quest for real food and family heirloom recipes. She blogs at The Lone Home Ranger. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Goodreads.

5 Responses to On Telling My Kids the Truth

  1. Emily  

    I love this approach. L hasn’t started asking too many questions yet (I get a few but the time is near when the questions will increase significantly). So far we’ve also tried to be honest and use real terms for body parts…we’ve definitely had a discussion about not yelling penis and vagina randomly at play dates : )

  2. Stef

    My 5-year old asked us what sex was. I asked him what he thought it was, and he replied that it was kissing with your mouth open. Surprised, because hubby and I don’t do that in front of the kids, I asked where he learned that. He told me that he does that with one of his female friends, who’s 6. I gently but firmly told him that when Mommy said that a mommy and daddy give special hugs and kisses and then God turns the egg into a baby, that THAT was the kind of kisses I meant. I told him that kind of kissing is just for grownups, so if his friend wants to do that again, he needs to tell her no.
    I omit certain things, but I don’t lie to our kids.

  3. Tamara Curry  

    I appreciate this so much. It’s the approach I intend to go with as Tristan starts to form questions. For me, information and knowledge are so important and can be the difference between being at peace and now. If he’s at all like me, I couldn’t imagine the results of not offering the information to him. I always forget that asking what he already knows will also help him form an answer to the question. Thank you for that!

  4. Momma Jorje  

    hahaha – great post! I had read another article about often responding with “I wonder…” and letting the child ponder the possible answers.

    I agree, honesty is the best policy. And answer only as much as your child is asking / ready to receive (especially about sex). I love your idea of asking “What would you like to know?” because it seems that really would narrow down the answer you’re supposed to give.!

  5. Heather  

    Mixed love and eh 😉

    See, I don’t see tummy and stomach as antithetical. My girls know that ‘tummy’ refers to the area and ‘stomach’ to the organ. I say my tummy hurts–always have. Most of my friends do, too. Often, it’s NOT my stomach that hurts, but my bowels (and very few of my friends want to know my IBS is acting up). So saying my ‘stomach’ hurts at that point is inaccurate. My kids can tell me if it’s their stomach or their tummy (and then show me where). But despite us going through their anatomy, they don’t have every internal organ memorized (my 5 year old is obsessed with anatomy, so we’ve been through the bones, organs, etc. multiple times).

    Be-bo? lol! I love my kids’ belly buttons and I tell them all the time that that’s where we were connected when they were in my tummy. Yes, they know that that means my womb/uterus. Again, it’s general term.

    I, too, hate cutsie nicknames for genitals. My girls call their vulvas by the proper word.

    I’ve always been honest with my oldest and she doesn’t get in trouble for the truth and she STILL went through a fibbing phase. My second is currently experimenting with it.

    So, clearly, I agree with honesty. I just don’t think it solves as many problems as I hoped. I still agree with it and always will. I despise being lied to and I won’t lie to my kids (I have joked with them with falsehoods, though–sarcasm is a very thick thing in my family and my 3 year old has quickly learned the difference between a joke [“Nope, you guys are going to stay in the car, alone while we go into the store.”] and the truth, though my 5 year old is just now starting to get it… but this is a vital tool in my family–the others aren’t going to change, so the kids need to know how to navigate).

    I totally avoided the sex talk when my 5 year old asked right next to her 3 year old sister, because I was suddenly thrown into an area where I didn’t know how to answer to respect the 5 year old’s maturity and the 3 year old’s ability to understand. I’m waiting for it to come up again, but it was, “How does Daddy put them sperm inside?” That was a bit more graphic than I was ready for, in the car, about to go into the store! LOL