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.

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