Be prepared for the day when your child asks that tricky question you'd probably rather avoid. 

Three Kids Holding Up Thinking Signs
Credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien

I'm not usually at a loss for words, but there have been times when my kids have left me speechless. I'm certainly thrilled that they're curious observers of the world, and I have always encouraged them to share their feelings and ask me questions. So why do I get flustered when they actually do? Maybe we all fumble for answers because we think that we need to have the perfect response every time.

"But it's fine—and perhaps even better—to say, 'That's a really good question. Let me think about it and we'll talk about it again later.' Just make sure that there is a later," says Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children's of Alabama, in Birmingham, and a Parents advisor. However, when you're tired or stressed, it's easy to skid into kneejerk reactions or to blurt out the type of retorts you hated hearing when you were young.

Fortunately, you can tweak the following scripts to suit just about any stop-in-your tracks question or comment that's lobbed your way.

Why Do You Have to Go to Work?

Your child isn't really asking for a list of reasons: She's telling you that she doesn't want you to go to work; she wants you to be with her. Rather than explain that you work to have money to buy food, acknowledge her feelings and steer the conversation toward something positive. You can say, "I know you wish I didn't have to go to work. I think about you when I'm gone. I have your picture on my desk to remind me that I'll see you soon."

Don't say that you wish you didn't have to go to work. "That sends the message that work is not something one can enjoy," says child-development-and-behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say. You can add, "I like my job and the people I work with."

If your child continues to ask why other parents stay home with their children, tell her, "Every family decides what is best for them" or "There are lots of things that I do. I am a mommy, I'm a wife, and I'm a... . And I take time to do all of them."

Everyone Has One. Why Can't I?

Kids are fierce negotiators. "Your child will try to wear you down by repeatedly, passionately, and persuasively asking for stuff," says Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Resist getting angry or lecturing him about how much he already has by responding with respect and firmness, she says.

You might say, "I know how badly you want a Star Wars lightsaber. We can put it on your birthday list or you can save up your allowance" or "Yes, Ashley has an iPhone, but every family makes different decisions.'' If your child's response escalates into a prolonged whine, add, "The subject is closed" or "I'm finished talking about this now."

Are We Rich?

Most young children don't know what "rich" really means, and their questions about finances are really about comparisons (a kid on the playground bragged that his family has a lake house) or whether they feel safe (if Daddy lost his job, will we be homeless?). Ask your child, "What does 'being rich' mean to you?" He may have overheard you talk about money problems or a lost job and he's honestly worried. Or he may simply want to be able to buy whatever he wants.

Once you determine what prompted his question, you can respond more accurately. If your financial situation is indeed rocky, you can say, "We have to be careful not to spend too much on extra things we don't really need right now, but you don't have to worry because we will always take care of you.'' If he presses for specifics, reassure him by saying, "We have more money than some people and less than others" or "We have as much money as we need to live the way we want and do the things we like."

How Come Uncle Bobby and Uncle Joe Sleep in The Same Bed?

This is one of those questions that may have a hidden meaning," says Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting Without Power Struggles. Is your child asking you about homosexuality or is he annoyed that every time they visit, he gets bumped to the trundle bed in his big brother's room?

A simple, honest answer is best: "Uncle Bobby and Uncle Joe love each other and live together at their house. That's why they sleep in the same bed when they visit us." If your child asks, "Are they gay?" your answer should be, "Yes, they are."

Will a Tornado Hit Our House?

Bad news travels fast. Experts agree that kids under age 7 should be shielded from TV news and dinnertime conversations about natural disasters as well as world tragedies. At any age, kids' antennae are finely tuned to your reactions. First, figure out what your child has already heard by asking, "Tell me, what do you know about that?" Validate her feelings by saying, "I know you're worried that the tornado/forest fire/hurricane is going to come near our house. It won't. It's far away."

And if it isn't? "It's never okay to lie," says Brown Braun, "but depending on your child's age and maturity, it may be okay not to tell her the whole story." The message you need to calmly convey is the same: "I'm in control and I have taken every precaution to keep you safe." To emphasize your point you can also add, "Everyone—policemen, firemen, teachers, and doctors—is working hard to keep you safe."

Is Grandma Going to Die?

"It's never a good idea to keep serious illness or death a secret because you think your child is too young to hear bad news," says Brown Braun. "He knows when you're worried, and if you don't explain what's going on, he may think that, somehow, whatever has happened is his fault."

When you have to break the sad news that someone is very ill and may die, wait until you're in control of your emotions. You can say, "Grandma is having a problem with her body and we hope she'll live a long time. We never know for sure, but the doctors are trying their best to fix the problem, if they can. They are taking good care of her." Another alternative might be, "Grandma has cancer. Some kinds of cancer can be treated, but she has the kind that can't be fixed and, yes, she may not be able to keep living. She may die.'' 

Be prepared for the next question, your child's greatest fear: "Are you going to die?" Reassure her by adding, "I am not going to die for a long time. My body is healthy and I'm going to take good care of myself and I'm going to be your mommy when you are in second grade, when you go to camp, when you are in middle school, and when you're in college."

Are You and Dad Going To Get Divorced?

Your marriage is the blueprint for every relationship your child will ever have. The fact that she is asking this question means you need to find a better way to express and heal any differences with your partner.

"This is the perfect opportunity to show that people who love each other may disagree, but they always do it in a respectful and loving way," says Dr. Fleisig. Escalating conflict is frightening, so if divorce is not on the agenda, reassure your child that you are not separating. Thank her for helping you recognize that fighting hurts everyone, and promise that you'll work hard to handle things better.

If you may, in fact, be splitting up, you and your partner need to explain the situation together: "We haven't been getting along. We tried hard to resolve our differences but decided it would be better if we didn't live together." Include basic details about where everyone will live, and be sure to underscore, "This is not because of anything that you did. We will always love you and we are always going to be your parents. It will be tough on everyone, but we will work hard to help you through this."

What if you change your mind about the answer you gave to one of your kid's questions or you realize that you didn't say exactly what you wanted to say? Reopen the conversation, even if it's a day or a week later, by saying, "I was thinking about what you asked me, and here's what I really want to say.... '' The fact that you care enough to follow up will mean more than you realize. 

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