Answering all those difficult toddler questions

by | Sep 18, 2020

We all like the idea of our children having enquiring minds, until they ask those questions that are so complicated to explain to little brains. Clinical psychologist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma gives parents some pointers.

Toddlers constantly ask questions and are rarely at a loss for words. The same cannot be said for parents, however, as there are times when our children leave us completely speechless.

Children don’t want us to lie or sidestep or even ignore their questions. We don’t even need to have the perfect response every time we are confronted with a tricky or sensitive inquiry. Some of life’s questions are difficult to talk through. But if we are not available and ready for frequent, honest and age-appropriate communication with our children from early on, the world will invite them to listen, learn, and drown them with all it has to share.

Even very young children are often exposed to more in their young lives than they may be ready to fully understand, so parents are central for providing the foundation and balance that children need, to figure out what’s true and what’s not.

The recipe for a good answer

Toddlers have the tendency (or at least mine does!) to completely catch us off guard, as their questions seem to come out of nowhere. Some even ask those dreaded questions in a public place or when your mother-in-law is visiting! Even though we will never be completely prepared, there are some basics to keep in mind that might help:

Be prepared
Instead of fearing those uncomfortable moments, parents should think about tough questions before they arise. Talk to your partner about some of them and formulate a few scripts that can easily be adapted for almost any awkward, sensitive or even painful question.

A teachable moment
Instead of wanting to run for the hills, remind yourself often of the great privilege (and responsibility) you have in helping your child to become a well-adjusted adult. View all questions as opportunities to engage with them in a way to shape their religion, your family’s principles and general views about life, and even to foster some resilience to future challenges.

Don’t give too much information
When we don’t know how to answer some of our children’s trickier questions, we tend to flood them with difficult concepts or talk too much. Consider your child’s question carefully and if you can answer with a ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘because’, leave it at that and see how they respond. If it satisfies their curiosity, move on, or only answer additional questions they might have and do not elaborate much on them.

Buy some time
It is sometimes better to say: “That is a really great question and I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that. I want to explain it all to you when we have a bit more time. Let’s do that after bath time.” Or you can say: “That is a good question. Let me think about it and we will talk about it again later.” Just make sure that there is ‘later’ and use the time to think about how you want to answer it appropriately.

Keep your answer age-appropriate
Toddlers don’t have the cognitive or mental capacity to understand concepts the way adults do, so don’t try to answer their questions with your own theories or beliefs running in the background. It will just get you into a tight spot and you might end up with a child struggling to make sense out of information that they don’t have any foundation to navigate from.

Get a handle on your emotions
Don’t laugh or make unkind remarks. Present your answers in a matter-of-fact way. That sends the message that you take your child seriously, that you value their questions, and feel comfortable answering them.

Create a safe atmosphere
Talk about the tough stuff when you are doing something together, like playing with playdough or driving. You do not need to sit down eye to eye with your toddler.

Honesty remains the best policy
Even though a small white lie might save you from a red face, the victory is temporary. Sooner or later your child will learn the truth – and often from someone else. And then they might conclude that their parent is either clueless or feels uncomfortable talking about serious matters. Either way, you really do want your children to come to you with life’s questions when they are teens, so it’s best to encourage honest discussion from the time they’re toddlers.

Life’s questions tend to be a series of ongoing conversations and not just one “big” one. Keep in mind that the answers given to a toddler should form the foundation for even more difficult questions in the near future. Often young children are not looking for an entire teaching; they are looking for a simple, one-sentence answer. Here are a few handy scripts to some awkward questions that can be elaborated on as needed:

Why do we not want others to see our private parts?
Because we use them for things we don’t do in public, like going to the bathroom. That’s why we refer to those body parts as ‘private parts’.

Why do my friends at school have more toys and clothes?
All adults decide what they want to do with their money. We decided that we’re not going to spend so much on toys and clothes. Why do I need to invite that boy to my party?
It might hurt his feelings if you don’t invite him and in our family we always try to be kind to others.

Where do babies come from?
They grow in mommies’ tummies.

How did the baby get inside the mommy’s tummy?
An appropriate answer for a toddler would be to focus on a religious belief such as: “The mommy and daddy wanted to have a baby together and prayed to become parents,” and not on the mechanical act of intercourse.

What happens when you die?
Your body stops working and your heart stops either because of sickness or an accident. More importantly, … (and then add your religious views and beliefs).

Will you die?
I take good care of myself and I plan to live a long life. So I will be your mommy/daddy throughout your childhood, right through until you are a grown-up.

Why does Joe have two dads?
Some families have a mommy and a daddy, others have only one parent, some children live with their grandparents and some have two daddies. Every family is different, but what is more important is that families are places where children are loved.