How Do You Talk to Your Child About Difficult Subjects?

How do you talk to your child about difficult subjects? What do you say when someone passes you in a wheelchair, and your child demands to know (in a very loud voice) why he or she can’t have a cool ride like that? And how about skin color? If it hasn’t come up because your children are too young, be prepared, because it will. People come in every shape, size, and color. Some have two arms and two legs, and some don’t. Some can see, and some can’t. How do you teach your children about people being different?

The whole, “people are different” thing again caught me off guard while watching an episode of Parenthood. If you don’t watch it, there is a biracial couple with a young son. The son overhears someone say the N word when recording a song. The parents must then navigate the tricky waters of telling their son what the word means and where it came from, which leads to a discussion of how white people used to own black people in America. Side note, you may think from previews that Parenthood is a comedy, but it will make you cry…every time.

So I watched this episode, which stuck in the back of my mind, and then it got linked up in my brain with the celebration of Columbus Day. This week, my daughter’s class is learning about Christopher Columbus in honor of Columbus Day. When I was a child, it was a pretty straightforward lesson. Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America (the Vikings may have a thing or two to say about that). I have no idea what they teach in schools these days, but when I talked through the story of Christopher Columbus with my daughter, I wanted to go beyond the whole “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” thing. We talked a bit about how there were people here when he “discovered” this land. We didn’t hit really tough topics (she’s six after all) other than to discuss how Columbus’ discovery wasn’t a good thing for all involved. We talked about how we would feel if someone came into the house we live in and said that they found it so they own it, and we had to leave.

The last two weeks have reinforced my belief that history – and life for that matter – is a messy and complicated business where the gray often outshines the black or white or the wrong or right of the matter. And that’s just history and facts. There is also the whole matter of the living and breathing people who are different from us and our kids. My daughter asked me recently why a little girl she saw didn’t have any hair. It nearly brought me to my knees. How do you explain childhood cancer to another child – or to anyone for that matter? It was all I could do not to break down trying to explain to her that God makes everyone different – how everyone’s bodies have different strengths and weaknesses. She understood that because her brother has some health issues. She gets it when things are made relevant to her through personal examples like that, and so that is the path we take. Everyone is different and everyone is special, because that is how God made them. She may not understand the whys and the hows, but she accepts these things for what they are and doesn’t attach a value to it.

From what I have seen, this is how most kids approach the massive gray areas in the world. They notice differences, but they don’t attach a value to them unless they are taught to do so. As parents, we are often the first place young kids go for answers about why people are different, and we need to tread lightly when giving these answers. Our judgments can become our children’s judgments, and our biases can become their biases. This, of course, makes it seem like just another area where we are going to doom our kids to endless years of therapy. But does it have to be so? If it is true that our biases can become our children’s biases and our judgments theirs as well, couldn’t it also be true that our compassion can become their compassion and our understanding their understanding?  

Life is full of gray areas and “teachable” moments for our kids (and for us for that matter). I don’t know what the right answer is when the discussion gets messy and complicated. Like every other parent out there, I am flying blind and making it up as I go along. What I do know is that when my daughter asks why someone is different, my answer will be this: It is not just that person who is different. We are all different in our own way. We all face different challenges. We all have different strengths. Some of these challenges and strengths we can see, and some we can’t. But underneath all of our differences is the one unchangeable fact that we are all just people – different, yes, but no better or worse than anyone else out there.

Okay, I probably wouldn’t say it to my six year old like that…but as she gets older, I will certainly try. And what about you – how do you tackle tough subjects with your kids?

Shannon Hembree is a SAHM for a first grader and twin toddlers and the co-founder of Mamas Against Drama. She makes up parenting as she goes along and hopes for the best…kind of like when she cooks, although she hopes her parenting efforts are a lot more successful than her cooking efforts. You can follow her on Twitter @Shannon1Hembree.

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