I grew up in a family where certain things just didn’t get talked about. My parents, like many of their generation, directly avoided discussing any topic that made them uncomfortable or which they assumed we were too young, or naive or immature to understand. In this way, taboos got established and deeply rooted in our family. It wasn’t that my questions didn’t get answered as a child. I was discouraged from ever asking them in the first place. I found out about Santa and sex the way a lot of young children do–on the school playground. I was deeply disappointed on both accounts.
As a teen, if we did have a conversation about alcohol or drugs, it was to strictly condemn experimentation of either. Subjects like discrimination, violence, racism and large-scale human atrocities were the responsibility of school, often as an unemotional sidebar to a history lesson. The human body and its functions (that miraculous, mysterious, magical vessel of inner workings) was reduced to a diagram poster in the science lab or school nurse’s office. Sexuality, puberty and the female cycle (with its intricate web of fragile teen emotions) were thankfully addressed within the cherished pages of Judy Blume books.
I don’t blame my parents for this. They were raised according to a lingering post-Victorian authoritative parenting style. And while the more child-centered writings of Dr. Spock had largely taken hold by the 1960s, old patterns and perceptions die hard. However, the result was that my questions usually got answered by the experimentation my parents were ultimately trying to avoid. By learning that uncomfortable subjects should be swept under the carpet, I in turn avoided asking myself hard questions as a young adult.
My husband and I made the conscious decision to break the pattern of silence and taboos and replace it with trust–in our children and in ourselves as parents. We would answer all of our children’s questions, in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable they made us. And we would do it without drama, shame or condescension. We would answer questions like ”how many stars are in the sky?” and “how are babies made?’ with equanimity.
Interestingly, once we were faced with those questions (and there have been lots of them), answering them wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking as we had anticipated. The questions got asked, the answers came fairly naturally and, if their curiosity had been satisfied, my children would move on to something else. If not, there was fresh material for conversation, or research to be done until we found the answers they were looking for.
Paying attention to and addressing our children’s curiosity has led to many rich conversations about things like reproduction and their own birth stories, war, humanitarianism, sexual and gender identity, physical and mental disabilities, religious and cultural differences. Critics might say that we’ve offered too much information given their ages (9 and 10). I would argue instead that if a child is informed enough to ask the question in the first place, they are ready to handle the answer. If we remove the stigma from the subject matter, we ultimately demystify the process of talking about what our society deems “taboo.” With time and acceptance, we may even contribute to the dissolution of the taboo itself.
Having their questions answered in a safe environment by people they trust gives children the foundation to explore the world with confidence and ultimately removes the desire or need for future rebellion. Answering tough questions also opens the two-way door to asking them. Children are much more willing to share important emotions and events in a relationship where communication, respect and trust has been established. This seems like such a simple concept and yet I am constantly warned by other parents about the difficulties that lie ahead for us as we approach the “tween” years.
I lived through those years too. I remember them well. And I didn’t confide much in my parents, not because I didn’t love them, but because the path to open communication had never been paved. It’s my hope that by answering our children’s questions, we’ve eliminated their need to put up barriers of communication in the first place. As for what’s ahead, I can’t know for sure. I do know that we can’t avoid the questions themselves. They are universal, human and essential. And when we answer them, we may even uncover a few unexplored questions of our own.