By Teresa Renee Bain
As parents, we may feel the desire to protect our children, while at the same time wanting to prepare them for the inevitable bumps they will encounter along life’s road. Children are learning all the time. They learn from what they see, hear and experience. They also get messages about what is okay or not okay to talk about based on what they don’t see, hear or experience. How do we talk with children about difficult topics like illness, death, racism, safety, bodies and sexuality? How can conversations create space for their feelings, questions, and greater understanding of the world?
I asked a few parents three questions regarding their experience with brave conversations.
Question 1: What brave conversations did your parents have with you?
“My parents talked with me about staying away from drugs and alcohol. They explained the harms and risks and the consequences of bodily harm with an emphasis on the deadly consequences of drinking and driving.”
“My grandparents survived the Holocaust. I don’t recall a time I didn’t know some of my family had been tortured, raped and murdered by Nazis. I believe my grandparent’s motivation in sharing their experience was to protect us with fear. They didn’t want us to be caught off guard. There were expectations they had of us because of the trauma they endured. They wanted us to be successful and happy. It was important we behaved and were honored in our community. My parents had many conversations with me regarding my grandparents. I appreciated instead of my parents “teaching me”, we were processing together. I saw my parents both in strong and weak moments. My dad acknowledged he did not have all the answers. At times he asked me for advice. Regularly they would check in to see how I was doing. This made our relationship stronger and made me an adult who is comfortable raising ideas. I believe the trauma my grandparents endured can be transformed into wisdom and good. For me, part of that wisdom comes in greater empathy, inner strength, and a respect for elders. I believe children can do tough things, probably earlier than other parents might think.”
“The first difficult conversation I remember a grown-up having with me was when I was ten. My aunt was given the job of telling me my dad had died in a car accident. She was caring for us while my mom was with my dad in the hospital. I remember her telling me he had died because God needed him. Although, my aunt found solace in those words, as a child it seemed implausible God would need him more than I did. There was no invitation for my questions or grief and so I dealt with them the best I could on my own.”
“My mom called me into her room. I knew something was up when she shut the door for privacy. She was nervous as she talked about menstruation and that in the future, I would get my period. Because we hadn’t talked about anything related to bodies before, I thought bodies were something we shouldn’t talk about. I think we were both relieved when the talk was over. Even though, as a child, we did not talk about many hard things. I know my parents did the best they could. I imagine their parents did not talk with them about these things either. I want my children to get different messages.”
“When I was a teenager, my parents noticed a Lenny Kravitz poster in my room. They told me society wouldn’t accept me being with someone outside my race. We had never talked about race before. I did not ask questions. It wasn’t a discussion, but rather my parents describing the world to me. I imagine they did it because they wanted my life to be as easy as possible. For me, I remember thinking what they were telling me wasn’t right. Even so, looking back now I see episodes of racism my friends of color lived through which at the time I didn’t notice. I now have begun to see the racism that exists in me. I see people, including myself, can be friendly and still be racist. Fortunately, my teenage friend, who is black, has been willing to open the door to conversations we didn’t have back then. I judged my parents and regretted the missed opportunity for awakening for me. It could have opened my eyes. I’m okay acknowledging I am constantly growing and constantly uncomfortable.”
Question 2: What brave conversations have you already had with your children?
“We have talked about Covid-19 quite a few times. We watched the Sesame Street video about the virus. I’d already talked with my kids about grown-ups, so I used that language to talk about the governor being one of the grown-ups in charge of our state. We need to listen to what they are asking us to do to be safe. I’ve also talked about questioning grown-ups who are not doing a good job keeping people safe.”
“We’ve talked about the many ways families can be formed. Some families can look like ours and some may look different. I want my kids to know we don’t judge others. I want all families and people to be treated with respect by my kids.”
“With my own kids we talked about George Floyd. My daughter was seeing the news and noticed how sad I was. I broke down when I talked with her. I asked her what she knew about policemen. We talked about how they are supposed to protect us, but a few are not protecting people. We have in the past talked about the importance of her and her brother protecting each other. It boiled down to we are people of privilege, so it’s important for us to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. This conversation was really hard, but it built on ideas we had already begun to talk about.”
“When I was a young, I heard on the news about a child who had been hurt by an adult. My parents had not talked with me about this, so it was as a complete shock that sometimes adults hurt children. How do I keep myself safe I wondered? How do I know which adults are dangerous? I became nervous walking home from piano lessons. Every time a car drove by, I would run up to any house pretending I lived there. As a parent I wanted my kids to learn about the possible dangers in the world from me. This was hard because I wanted them to live in a bubble of safety forever. I worried about taking away a piece of their childhood innocence. And how to prepare them without causing them to lose their sense of joy. So far, I’ve used age appropriate stories, role playing and discussions to talk about stranger danger and safe boundaries with their bodies. I’ve encouraged them to ask questions anytime.”
Question 3: What brave conversations do you still want to have with your child?
“I want to talk to my child about them being in charge of their own body. I want to talk about pornography and the impact it can have. What is portrays vs. what real relationships can look like. I want to talk about the courage it takes to ask for consent in building relationships. That respect for yourself and others is important.”
“I am trying to lay a foundation of independent thought with my kids. Which means they know they get to choose what they believe. I don’t necessarily look at these conversations as being brave or difficult. I see it as an exciting opportunity. Possibly a do-over from my experience as a child. My motto is I want to prepare them, not protect them.”
“I plan to talk with them about special needs and special abilities. It is important for me that my children recognize people with special abilities are unique, to be celebrated, and part of what makes our human race diverse and special.”
“Our daughter joined our family through adoption. Even though she is young, she’s already noticed the way we snuggle with a bottle is different than her friend who snuggles while nursing on his mother’s breast. I talk with her about her beautiful caramel skin and how it is a different color than mine. Since she is still young, I don’t know how much she understands. But I want to practice so I can gain ease in talking about how our family came to be. I know this will be an ongoing conversation with more questions as she gets older. I’ve wondered what questions she will have and if she will ask why her biological parents couldn’t take care of her?”
How would you a have answered these questions? What conversations did your parents have with you? How did you feel about them? What have you already talked with your own children about and what is still waiting to be said?
If we wait until we are completely comfortable, we may be waiting a long time to begin very important conversations. What is what is most important is to simply start. We can gain comfort alongside our children. Children will learn. The question is whether you want to be part of the conversation with them or not.
If needed we can start by saying, “this is hard for me to talk about, but it is important.” We will get better at it the more we do it. If our children ask something we don’t know, we can say, “let’s find out together.” In addition to talking to other parents, Google offers many articles, videos and book suggestions on any topic.
Instead of a formal sit down talk we can have small, everyday discussions based on our child’s questions and wonderings. We can look for opportunities in everyday activities like while they are taking a bath, driving in the car, at the grocery store, taking walks or reading books together.
So, let’s begin, even if we are afraid. Decide the first thing we want to say and leave room for questions. By being brave ourselves, our children will find their own bravery. By tackling difficult topics, our children will gain strength and confidence in taking on their own challenges. By modeling humility and curiosity as we continue to learn, our children will see all things are worthy of a conversation.