-answer the question that is being asked, not the question you are afraid is being asked
-keep it age-appropriate and localized
-keep it honest
-when in doubt, ask him or her "what do you think?"
The "How does the baby get in your tummy?" question came as we were driving in the car in the afternoon. Being a follower of my own advice, I asked her, "What do you think?" to which I was told, "I don't know. You tell me." Trying quickly to sort through what she already knew, wonder what she's already heard, and gauge what the right reaction might be, I said, "Well, that's where babies grow." She said, "but how do they get in there?" And I replied, "When it is time, that is where babies grow, and then they come out. Do you know that the day you were born was very special?" The conversation then shifted to the day she was born and how amazing that was.
I am not proud that I dodged the question, but having spent the morning's car ride trying to explain the difference between America the country and Captain America the superhero, I was fairly certain that the biological answer was not age-appropriate. I was unprepared for any "seed" metaphors (and am not certain that's what I want to say), so the best approach for me was to shift the conversation to something that is age-appropriate, talking about birth as a special moment for families to celebrate. If nothing else, I have assured my daughter that her birth was a miracle and she has been loved from the first moment we saw her (and before).
Later in the week, my daughter turned to me at the dinner table and asked, "Mommy, are you going to die?" Death has been a topic in our home recently as she has been trying to process some of the pieces of the princess stories which previously went unnoticed. We have told her that death is when a person has to go away and cannot come back, we cannot see the person (except in pictures) and cannot hear the person, but we remember them and think about them and still love them. My answer to her was a simple, "Yes, everyone dies. We pray that they die when they are very, very old." "How old, Mommy?" "Really old, like 100." "Do we get old fast?" "No, it takes a long, long time."
You and I both know that people can die tragically young, and this week as a rabbi I was made painfully aware of this reality in multiple ways. Yet for my almost-four year old, this is not age-appropriate to discuss. Her first encounter with death is likely to be her great-grandparents and the explanations we have given will hold up in that situation. And, in the painful and tragic event that we need to explain it to her differently, it will be from a place of faith and love. Right now, she is asking from a place of curiosity and probably a little anxiety, so we want to be reassuring on both counts.
As parents, I believe our responsibility is to try to be honest with our children, and thus be honest with ourselves. I want to make sure I have given true statements, even if they aren't fully answering the question, and I want to encourage asking questions so we have ongoing opportunities to evolve with our answers. Yet, we also have the responsibility of knowing what is age-appropriate, both in offering more information and in offering less.
I also remember that whatever I say to my daughter about these questions is likely to be held against me in the court of the preschool classroom. Those kids talk, and I want to make sure I don't get a phone call! This is a good reminder that we need to have conversations with our fellow parents about how they are discussing this with their children so we can be respectful and learn together. We might get good ideas for talking with our own children, and also be able to understand where some of the questions (or answers) are coming from.
Which question would I rather get? I like them both. What I care about is making sure my husband is present for the next time a question is asked!