Every child, at some point, will hit you with one of those Big Awkward Questions of life that we tend to dread. You know the ones: “How did the baby get into your tummy?” “Why can’t I see God?” “Why do some people have different colour skin?” “Why did Jesus die?” “Why is poo brown?” Children really want to know everything, don’t they?
Lots of us feel a bit nervous about what to tell young children about the facts of life and such sensitive subjects, how much detail to go into and when is the right time to begin. The last thing we want to do is corrupt their innocence. I have been asked by several mums what is the right thing to do.
Of course there are very many opinions, and you must do what seems right to you. But if you want my opinion, here it is.
My advice is to answer children’s questions as simply and honestly as possible, only answering the question they asked and no more, unless essential for their understanding. A little girl asking about how the baby got out of mummy’s tummy does not need to know about periods or obstetrics. It is enough to tell her there is an opening through which the baby came out. If she needs to know more, she will ask.
Always make it age-appropriate. At puberty you can tell her what she needs to know to cope with at this time in her life; children under 9 or 10 (unless developing early) do not really need to know. (This may seem obvious, but I have found myself being forced to answer a confused six year old’s questions about the menopause; her mother no doubt meant well, but may have floundered in too deep when she enlightened her child in great detail about feminine reproduction…)
Children are very matter-of-fact. I have found that a very simple, clear explanation for all bodily functions is always perfectly adequate. Poo is brown because it is a mix of all the colours of the food we eat, just like when paint gets mixed up. We have a special set of eyes inside us which can see God. A child’s brain may not be ready to understand all the technical details until she is older, when you can update her if she asks.
Children are intensely curious about everything, and completely innocent. They will ask about the difference between boys and girls as readily as about summer and winter. There does not have to be a long Talk about the birds and the bees; simply giving them answers to their questions, a little at a time, is enough.
Death is another big scary subject for us adults. But to a small child it is fascinating, made more so by the hushed air of secrecy grownups put around it. If you can think of death as just another part of life, and link it in your mind to the life cycle of plants and bugs, it becomes much easier to explain to your child.
If you have a faith, I find it a big help to visualise a better world where all pain is gone and one is with one’s Creator. Even a three year old can understand the idea of a soul and the afterlife. But the concept of a body being recycled into the earth and becoming part of the trees and natural world can also be quite beautiful.
I don’t think it is wrong to tune into a child’s natural wonder when we come across a newly-dead small creature (maggots, blood and guts are probably best passed over). But when we found a still-warm dead squirrel that had just fallen out of a tree, the two year old was overjoyed, and I hadn’t the heart to part him from his new ‘friend’. He still recalls the magic of that day 7 years later, the day he had the honour of making friends with a wild squirrel. For years we told stories about Mr Squirrel, and how all the forest creatures love the Big Kind Boy, and he is now part of the family mythology.