In an unusually inquisitive week at the Henricks household, my kids collaborated to pin me down on everything from how babies are made to how Santa goes around the world in one night.
In evaluating five different ways I responded, I am proudly giving myself a score of 2.5 out of 5. Given the huge curve that must be used when grading parenting efforts, a score of 50 percent is actually a very good grade.
More important than how my responses measured up, however, are the invaluable lessons I learned.
Lesson #1 – Completely ignoring a question can earn partial credit.
When my eight-year old daughter asked out of the blue how Santa Clause gets to all the houses in the world in one night, I pretended I didn’t hear her.
She didn’t ask again.
When I pretended not to hear her question about how babies are made, she asked again. Many times. In different ways. With suggestions, like “Do you eat something and then the baby grows?” and “Or does a doctor give you a pill?”
The fact that she just let there be silence when I ignored the Santa question makes me think she is starting to figure it out. She told me recently that deep down she knows her imaginary friends aren’t real, and they’ve been visiting her less often. However, I still hear her talking to imaginary friends at least once a day. Maybe she is having the same realizations about Santa, but as with her imaginary friends, she isn’t ready or doesn’t want to completely face reality.
Regardless of why her question wasn’t repeated, I give myself partial credit for doing nothing. There is no reason to rush ending her excitement over Santa Clause. Childhood goes by quickly enough as it is. When my daughter is ready, she will ask again. Or, she won’t, because she will have figured it out on her own. For now, I’m just grateful she isn’t ready, because honestly, I’m not either.
Lesson #2 – Don’t say the first thing that pops into your head – they’re too smart.
In my defense, it was really late when the conversation below occurred, my son’s actual bedtime had long come and gone, bedtime with this particular child has always been exceptionally challenging, and I was past the point of being rational.
Five-year-old son: “Mommy, why can’t we eat junk food right before bed?”
Tired Mommy: “Because you’ll get fat.”
Five-year-old son, starting to panic: “If I eat chips right before bed, when I wake up I will be fat??”
Tired Mommy: “Well, no, you won’t get fat the next morning. Actually, you have a really high metabolism, and you are a child, and are growing, so you could probably eat whatever you want and you wouldn’t get fat.”
Five-year-old son: “So only grown-ups get fat? There are no fat kids?”
Tired Mommy: “Well, yes, there are fat kids.”
Five-year-old son, really starting to panic: “So, I will get fat then? If I ever even have just one chip before bed, I’ll wake up fat!?”
Completely ignoring the question clearly works better than not really trying at all to filter your thoughts before speaking. Tough questions require that you at least do a basic sanity check of your initial knee-jerk response.
I mean, seriously? “Because you will get fat?” That might be why Mommy tries not to eat right before bed, but really, that’s an appropriate answer for my five-year old??
How about “Because it’s bad for you.”
Or, “Because the doctor said eating before bed makes us not able to go to sleep.”
Or “Because I said so, now go to sleep!”
Lesson #3 – Your kids aren’t trying to purposely reveal your inadequacy or challenge your intelligence.
Out of nowhere, my daughter asked me “Why is everything made in China?”
Somehow this question felt bigger and harder than if she’d asked me the meaning of life or to explain inorganic chemistry. At least I had thought about how to answer a question about the meaning of life, and since I’ve never taken inorganic chemistry, answering a question about it would be an easy “I don’t know.” I had not thought of how to answer a question I perceived to be about global economics and international relations, which was more or less my major in college. I was completely unprepared and felt totally inadequate.
What should I have said? That I honestly don’t know all the reasons so many things are made in China. That maybe we could research it together. That it was a really good question. That I really didn’t know how to explain what I did know about the subject in a way that she would understand. That maybe we could start to talk about China by looking at a map and talking about what she knows about China.
What did I say? Well, it wasn’t really exactly what follows, but it’s not as huge of an exaggeration as you might think. For all practical purposes, I might as well have said what’s below given how much of what I did say was actually comprehended.
I started with something along the lines of “Well, my darling daughter, domestic manufacturing has been slowly declining for years, but it’s not something you should worry your pretty little eight-year old head over. You see, global free trade has just driven specialization among nations, and as Adam Smith explains in A Wealth of Nations, specialization is ultimately a good thing, because it allows everyone to be more successful. China has developed an environment and mechanisms where durable goods can be produced more cheaply than in the United States, and this has in turn allowed us to become experts in more interesting, exciting and better paying jobs that do not require us to do the repetitive tasks required in factory assembly lines. “
Mid-explanation, I thought that maybe what I was telling her was totally wrong. It actually isn’t really a good thing that everything is made in China, right? We want more stuff to be made here don’t we? Why don’t I know this stuff? I was a Public Policy major 20 years ago for goodness’ sake!
So I continued with, “It’s not really good though that everything is made in China. We should make more things in the U.S.“
That was it. No explanation as to why I completely said exactly the opposite of what I had said before. Not like it mattered since she was just continuing to look at me with that blank face that lets me know she has not understood a single thing I’ve said. At this point though, I had completely forgotten about her, and was really just too far down the track on my own crazy train to stop. I had no choice but to list when another nagging voice piped up in my head saying this would be a good opportunity to explain how I really wished I did a better job of being a minimalist and how our over consumption of all this stuff made in China is really contributing to a global epidemic of consumerism that is ultimately destroying the planet and our souls.
And so next she heard something like “Did you know there are so many factories in some places in China that the pollution is so bad the people who live there have to wear masks? Sometimes I think about that when I buy one more thing I don’t really need that says it is made in China. That’s why sometimes I tell McDonalds that we don’t need a toy and I give it back.”
I have given a toy back to McDonald’s exactly one time.
Since I am pretty sure that zero percent of what I said to answer this question registered with my daughter, I am giving myself a zero on this one. If anything, I think I may have confused her even more, but I’m not willing to give myself a negative score. The curve isn’t that good.
Lesson #4 – Timing is important – it’s okay to postpone answering a question until you are ready.
When my daughter pressed me on how babies are made, I knew this was an important question that I needed to take time to answer the right way. I had researched before when to have the sex talk, and remembered that kids weren’t really ready to be told much before nine.
When my daughter was six or seven and asked the question, I was able to end the conversation by just asking her the question back: “How do you think the baby gets in the Mommy’s tummy?”
It turned out someone at school had said something really off the wall that she knew wasn’t true. The only reason she even asked the question was to tell me the story. Once she told me about it, she moved onto another topic without even realizing her question had never been answered.
This time though, the question was real, and it wasn’t fleeting.
Since we were also with my five-year old, I told my daughter I would get back to her on the question the next day when we could discuss it alone.
I researched on the internet the best ways to handle the subject. Nine to twelve years old was the age range I found for when kids were really ready for this knowledge. Since my daughter was eight and in third grade, I decided that she was ready for something, even if it wasn’t the whole picture. I didn’t want to spill the entire can of beans and scare her before she was ready, but I also didn’t want to leave her hanging or gloss over the question.
I talked to my husband, and he gave me the perfect words to say. He reminded me to bring God into the answer, since ultimately, it is really His handiwork. It’s amazing how quickly I can forget to bring God in when I’m trying to solve a problem on my own! Consulting other people of faith is a predecessor to all my good moments. I think God purposely ensures we need each other so we can’t take individual credit for accomplishments. I have heard pastors say that God intends for us to be in community just like He is – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have found this to be so true in my life.
Anyway, the next day, before forcing my daughter to know any information she really wasn’t ready for, I asked her if she remembered what we’d talked about the day before. She didn’t miss a beat. She knew right away what I was talking about. I asked her how she thought babies got in tummies. Her answer was so sweet, I got tears in my eyes. She just said “Love.”
I said she was right, babies are made through the love between a Mommy and Daddy. That Mommy and Daddy get really close, and then with God’s help, they do something that causes a baby to get into the Mommy’s tummy. That was it.
Her response? “Ewwww. Let’s please never talk about this again.”
I wasn’t expecting this response based on what I thought was a G-rated answer, but I was also okay with it. I knew the answers I provided were appropriate for her age, because I’d done my research. I knew it was in line with my faith and with my husband’s view, because I’d consulted another person of faith and had respected my husband by discussing it with him. I’m happy that my daughter knows if she presses me about something, I will give her a real answer.
In some ways, the fact that my daughter got uncomfortable may even be a good sign. I firmly believe that sometimes conversations with your kids should be uncomfortable. All questions shouldn’t be met with silence or silly knee-jerk responses, and this was one of those important ones that required a well-thought out response that took both of us outside our comfort zones.
I am sure contrary to what she said, we will be talking about this subject again, hopefully many times. And I hope each time I remember to consult with others, rely on research and to not be afraid of being uncomfortable.
Lesson #5 – Honesty and humility are the best policies.
The last question I responded to this week was from my son. Again, when he should have been sleeping, he asked me a difficult question that I didn’t immediately know how to answer – if God is a girl or a boy.
I tried answering by asking him the question back, “What do you think?”
He was too smart for that and responded with “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.”
I then answered honestly that I don’t really know. That we call God a boy most of the time at church but really He is bigger.
I didn’t obsess over answering the question perfectly.
I didn’t over-compensate for my lack of perfect understanding about God by going into some diatribe about how the Christian faith has always had a patriarchal view of the Father and Son, but the Trinity also includes the Holy Ghost, and really the word for gender is known in the Greek as blah, blah, blah, blah.
Instead, my answers came from a place of complete humility. I realized that answering all of my kids’ questions is not really my job. I don’t have to be an encyclopedia for them. It’s okay to say “I don’t know, that’s a great question.” When I do answer a question, I don’t have to answer it perfectly.
Children quit listening after the first couple sentences anyway. It’s best to keep answers short and simple and then check in, realizing this conversation is not going to be the only opportunity to talk about sex, or God, or whatever seemingly important subject is at hand. There will be plenty more teachable moments. The important thing is just to be there, to try our best, to be honest and humble, and to cut ourselves some slack.
After all, this isn’t really a test, and we’re not really measured against each other. Even our mistakes can have value, because God uses everything. He is ultimately the one in control, and the grades He passes out have nothing to do with our performance but only with His grace.