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Difficult Conversations with Kids: How to Answer Tough Questions and Talk About Serious Subjects With Your Children

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Last night I was reading Coraline a bedtime story, an Indian fable chosen at random from a collection. Long story short (no pun intended), we come to the moment when the three main characters find their friend, the goat, caught in the hunter’s net; the goat says something to the effect of “get me out of here before the hunter kills me.” My eyes fell on “kill” and I froze. I couldn’t say it. I sat and stared at it, embarrassed by my inertia, as Coraline stared at me like “Earth to Mama, there’s more words on that page.” After what felt like five minutes I decided to just skip ahead to the next sentence, my inner dialogue shifting from “What is your problem?” to “Pull it together you silly woman.”

I’ve been at a similar loss for words before with Coraline. Like when we walked past the Catholic church on the corner and she asked me what it was and what people do there. Or when, upon hearing of my brother’s engagement, she asked me why I wasn’t married. I don’t even remember exactly what I ended up saying on either occasion, only that I felt disappointed in myself, that I couldn’t readily offer up answers that were both true and appropriate.

In the moment, reading the story, it felt like saying that word was opening up her mind to an ugliness I’m not ready for her to know yet. To this point, I also avoid “death” and “dying.” I worry that I’m being overly something with her -— some unhealthy combination of coddling, denial, and performance anxiety. But I also worry that I’m going to say the absolute wrong thing. Or that I won’t know what to say at all when my curious kid asks the inevitable follow-up question of “why.” I have my beliefs, but they won’t necessarily be hers. And how do you convey your personal beliefs with the appropriate conviction, without automatically implying that other people’s beliefs that are different are bad or wrong?

I have no answers when it comes to this stuff, so I’m curious how other parents deal with explaining things like death and answering big questions. Am I being too sensitive?

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