My four-year-old daughter found a box of tampons the other day. “What are these for?” she asked. I chuckled and I said, “They’re mommy’s.” She nodded, waiting for more. “And I think it would make a little more sense to you if we talked about what they’re for when you’re a teeny bit older.” She smiled at me and, “Okay!” and ran back to whatever she was doing before.
It was a lesson for me–learning that I don’t have to answer all of my toddler’s tough questions right away. That I can take the space and ponder how I’m framing the world for them.
It used to be that when my daughters asked difficult questions, I would sweat my answers for all sorts of reasons. I felt like I should respond immediately, so that they had faith in their mother’s confidence. I thought I should be as open as possible, so that they could always trust the honesty of our relationship. But at the same time, I wanted to protect their innocence and allow them to be little where they still could.
The conversations haven’t always been easy. I remember the holiday trip to Target where, as part of our Advent calendar, we were going to pick out small gifts for children whose parents were incarcerated. My five-year-old asked me why we were buying toys. “They celebrate Christmas,” I said of the kids we were shopping for, “but their mommies or daddies won’t be around, so we want to help make it special.” This shocked and astounded my daughter. “Where will the mommies and daddies be?”
A million questions raced through my head. I want to raise kind, worldly kids who understand needs and empathize where they can. At the same time, I’m averse to “us versus them” thinking, and discussing prison could mean questions like “where?” and “why?,” instantly creating a dividing line between my girls and the kids they were helping.
I needed a minute. So I looked in the rearview mirror and said, “I really want to talk to you about this. But I’m trying to figure out my best answer. Can you wait until we get to Target? I’m going to think while we drive, and then we can talk before we go in.”
“Of course, mama,” she said. It was really only five or ten more minutes; but I was able to assess what she, at five-years-old, needed to know and what I hoped to accomplish. We pulled into a parking spot and I turned off the car.
“Thanks for waiting,” I said. “I’m glad that you have questions about who we are helping and why. And while we were driving over here, I realized that it’s the kids we are helping that matter most. Sometimes, mommies and daddies aren’t around, and there are all sorts of reasons. But even without knowing what those reasons are, we can be kind to their kids. And we’re going to do that today by finding a present. Does that sound good?” They both nodded their heads excitedly. “Do you feel good about that answer for now?” My daughter grinned and said, “Yes, mama!”
Since then, I’ve tried to remember that trust already exists. I’m as much their protector as I am their teacher, and I have the benefit of a bigger picture. That’s the part I need to be honest about–the why behind my answer.
The way I answer can have a bigger impact than the answer itself, and both of my daughters have come to appreciate that I will help them understand as best I can at the best moment possible. Sometimes it’s good to have the answers. But it’s just as important to teach your kids that sometimes we have to wait; sometimes we have to learn; and sometimes we just don’t know.
I know these conversations will get more complex, and the topics more diverse, as my girls learn more about the great big world out there. I’ll be fielding questions about faith, sexuality, religion, politics, and much more. When we get to that point, I hope they’ll see me as a person who, just like them, is doing my best to figure it all out.