Joanna Schroeder thought she was prepared for the questions her boys might ask… Turns out she was wrong.
Kids ask a ton of questions, we all know that. It usually starts with a simply, with question like, “What is air made of?” and ends an hour later with one of us on the verge of screaming, “I DON’T KNOW WHY TURTLES DON’T WEAR HATS OR WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF A SHARK COULD TALK!”
But there are times when their questions tap into some of the most profound unknowns in human existence, and we’re forced to face the reality that there is so much in our lives that we simply don’t understand… or at least can’t really explain.
Here are 7 notable questions our kids have asked that have really stumped us.
1. Why do people die?
Yeah, you can explain the biology. The body grows old and tired, it may get a disease or it may have been hurt, like in an accident. For whatever reason, it can’t sustain life any more. There’s also the argument that there isn’t enough room on the planet for all of the people to live forever, because new babies have to enter the world.
If you’ve recently lost someone, especially someone young, it’s the hardest question you’ll ever face. The reality is, we don’t know. I don’t know why one set of humans can’t populate the earth forever. I don’t know why a baby gets sick and dies. If you believe in God, I don’t know why God would let that happen. I don’t know why cancer takes people’s lives too early. Honestly, I do not.
And kids like definite answers. They like “no” and “yes” and facts and figures. And if you’re being honest, there really aren’t any definite answers. There’s only the hope that someday we’ll understand.
2. Why did the man singing that song say, “f**cking like gorillas”?
Imagine you’re visiting your parents, who are actual Senior Citizens, and you borrow your mother’s car. Imagine you turn on the car and hear a fun little pop/R&B song with a catchy chorus. Imagine you get distracted talking with your spouse and you aren’t really paying attention to the CD that is in your parents’ stereo.
Then imagine your 5 year-old saying, “Why did that man just say, ‘f**king like gorillas?'”
You’ll probably press EJECT fifty times and examine this CD your mom has in her disc drive (your mom, who loves Bette Midler and Olivia Newton John).
Bruno Mars, you’ve heard of him. You saw him on Letterman. Or was it Leno? You can’t remember. Some place where uncool parents hear bands they’ve never heard of.
You’ll probably pick up your iPhone and Google “Bruno Mars Gorilla” and read the lyrics.
Then you’ll laugh hysterically at the absurdity of it all. But you’ll still have to explain it to your kids…
3. Is Stax in heaven?
Our oldest dog, a goofy labrador, died when the kids were pretty small—around 3 and 5 years old.
We told them that Dr. Dean came over to help Daddy make sure Stax wasn’t in pain, and then Marcelino and Daddy buried Stax’s body in the back yard, and planted a tree in the burial spot.
“Can he breathe under there?” Izz was afraid. I think he was imagining being buried alive, which is exactly what I was thinking about at my great aunt’s funeral when I was the same age.
“No, Honey, Stax isn’t breathing anymore. He can’t feel anything or see anything. He’s not scared or feeling any pain. That body is just like a rock or dirt now. It doesn’t have life.”
“Is Stax in heaven?” they wondered.
We do not subscribe to a specific religion in our house, but we have always believed in leaving room for our kids to find their own paths to God—or not. Our answers to God-related questions have always started with, “Many people believe…” We figure whatever they grow up believing, as long as it doesn’t harm others, will be fine with us. And above all, we don’t want them thinking that any other people’s beliefs are wrong.
So how do you explain heaven to a little boy? I really don’t know.
If I’m being honest, my heart is committed to the fluffy-clouds, no-pain, no-sadness version of the afterlife. I imagine my Grandma Lu opening her arms to the soul of my 23 year-old nephew, who passed away three years ago. I imagine them both free of any sort of pain.
I think of my husband’s mother meeting up with her sister and mother somewhere, laughing and happy again. I think of a heaven where my cousin’s beautiful weeks-old daughter is cradled by her grandpa Russ, who had passed away just before the baby died suddenly. I think of her being adored by her great-grandma Betty, who loved babies more than just about anything else.
I think of this heaven when I hear news like the death of Martin Richard in the Boston bombings, of all the children in Newtown, of the thousands of children who have died during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Of the innocents who are massacred in Syria, and people who die of malnutrition or violence everywhere. I think of them in heaven where I imagine things are fair. Where they have no fear.
And honestly, I think of a heaven where Stax is running in the grass and swimming in lakes and chasing tennis balls without having to limp on his arthritic joints.
And so I say, “Yes. I think so.”
4. Why do you have two dads?
I always reply, “Because I’m lucky.”
No, I don’t have gay dads, I have a dad and a stepdad, both of whom I love without limits and who love me back the same way. Gramps and Pop Pop are equally huge parts of my sons’ lives, and offer different skills and adventures to their grandkids.
But my kids know that babies come from a sperm and an egg, so they know that at some point Mimi and Gramps were together.
And that’s where it gets hard. How do you tell your kid that when you were a very small child, your dad moved to a different house and you didn’t see him every day?
How do you do this without introducing the fear that their own family structure might someday crumble?
I explained that my mom and dad were unhappy together, that they didn’t get along or like being together, and so our whole house was sad. When they had different houses, we were able to have fun with Mom and Dad separately, and it was more peaceful.
As hard as I tried, I think it still affected them. I know that the cruelties of life are unavoidable, but it seems like their emotional antennae are now tuned to Ivan’s and my moods, waiting for us to be unhappy, fearful that we will no longer be the tightly-bonded unit they’ve always known. We try to reassure them that we are fine, but I know it’s tough to go from blissful ignorance to the reality that love sometimes ends.
5. Why did someone kill Dr. King?
How do you explain to privileged white children who have never even heard the word “race”, that there are horrible people in the world who believe that the color of your skin dictates who you are and how much value you have?
It’s hard, but you have to do it. You have to do it because it’s a reality for half their classmates in elementary school, a reality that they will be facing the rest of their lives. You have to, because you need to be the one who teaches your kid about race so you can be sure to tell them that all people are created equal and deserve equal respect. That every group of people—be it a race, a nationality, a body type, a religion, a gender, an ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or disability—has amazing people, average people, and bad people.
And you have to tell them that there were people in the 1960s who believed Dr. King’s bravery was dangerous, and so they killed him. Because they were bad and they were afraid of the truth, the truth that every single person on this earth deserves the same chance to be happy and fulfill their dreams. And you have to explain that there are still people in the world who believe the way the people who wanted to hurt Dr. King did.
And you can explain that things are getting better, though too slowly. You can explain that it’s their job as good people to do the opposite of those people, to give everyone the same chance and not decide who people are based upon their race (or nationality, body type, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability or disabilty).
And it’s going to be sad for them, and scary. But it’s reality. As Mr. Rogers says, “focus on the helpers” and teach them about the brave people who are making the world better. About Dr. King and Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks and everyone else who fought for Civil Rights, like Bobby Kennedy. Show them the heroes so they know how to be one.
6. What does “when” mean?
Also included here are “if” “where” “while” “then” and “there” and every other subordinating conjunction or preposition.
It should be simple, but just try defining the word “when”. Seriously. Try it now.
Think nobody would ever ask you to define the words I’ve listed above? You obviously don’t have children.
6. Why is Bella’s dad in Afghanistan?
First, you have to explain why Osama Bin Laden was a bad man and why he wanted to hurt other people. Do this without making it seem like this is what Islam teaches, and without making it seem like their friends who are Arab-American are in any way associated with these bad people.
Then explain that the war isn’t actually against the Afghani people.
The next question might be, “Why couldn’t another person go, someone who isn’t a father?” And then try not to feel terrible as you explain that there aren’t enough people who don’t have little kids to go, and that they need as many people as they can get.
Get ready, because that’s when he will ask, “Why is Bella’s dad still there even though Bin Laden is dead?”
Tell him it’s a good question, and that ultimately we support Bella’s dad no matter what.
7. Mom, why do you shave your legs and Dad doesn’t?
My 5 year-old walked into the bathroom on the first day really hot day of summer, where I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub in a pair of shorts, shaving my legs. He looked at my legs, at the razor, and raised an eyebrow.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m shaving my legs.”
“I’m taking off the hairs.”
“Dad doesn’t do that.”
“So why are you doing it? That razor is sharp.” (He’s been told 100 times in the shower not to touch it.)
“Some people think it looks better.”
“Should I do it?”
“No, your legs are perfect the way they are.”
“But yours aren’t?”
And now for the questions that were surprisingly easy to answer.
I don’t know how you learned about conception, but I learned about it in 4th grade when my mom put the book Where Did I Come From? on my bed and a week later asked if I’d gotten a book and if I had any questions.
I said no.
So I already knew how I was not going to be teaching my kids about sex. I followed Dr. Laura Berman’s advice and started out simply, with science. “Dad’s sperm contained a part of your genetic code, and so did Mom’s. When they came together, a whole new person (you) were formed. Then you grew in my womb, which is a cozy spot in mommies for babies to grow until they’re ready to be born.”
Over time the kids asked again, each time wanting more details and specifics.
“But Mom, how does the sperm get inside the womb to the egg?” My oldest finally asked.
So I explained about the sperm coming out of a man’s penis and how he puts the penis into the woman’s vagina so the sperm can swim up to the egg. Because they’re so young, I didn’t get into lust, or love, or humping or oral sex or orgasms or anything else. Just the facts, ma’am (or sir).
Again, my kids were unfazed and so was I. My eldest laughed a little and said, “Really? That seems weird.”
Then they just started talking about something else. Probably Legos or farts or Despicable Me.
2. Why does Ellie have two dads and no mom?
Despite all the creepy propaganda during the Proposition 8 campaign telling parents that teaching a child about same-sex couples will ruin their lives, explaining two-dad or two-mom families to kids was one of the easiest conversations I’ve ever had with my kids.
When he was 4 years old, my eldest got into the car and wondered where Ellie’s mom was, and why she has two dads.
“You know already that Dad and I fell in love and decided to make a family, right? Well, Ellie’s two dads met each other, fell in love, and decided to make a family just like us.”
“Oh. Cool,” is what he said.
Far from traumatized.
Since then, especially after learning where babies come from, the questions have become more specific. They wonder whose sperm and whose egg were used. They wonder who was the lady who pushed Ellie out.
I tell them that I don’t know. There was definitely a lady who grew Ellie in her womb and pushed her out, but we don’t know who she is, and it doesn’t matter. Ellie, her dads, and her brothers are a family just like us and they don’t need anything more.
And that’s that.
What I’ve learned in my near-decade of being a parent of two curious, hilarious little boys is that all the things I thought were going to be tough about raising kids were actually pretty simple. It seems to be the sneak-attack questions and situations that really throw me for a loop. The experiences I never thought they’d have, the technology I never realized they’d have access too, the very adult situations they’ve had to face.
But I have to believe that sometimes, the most honest answer you can give a child is simply, “I don’t know. I wish I did.”
Lead photo: Flickr/Davide Comelli
Also by Joanna Schroeder: