Help me not screw up my kid!
June 7, 2012 1:21 PM   Subscribe

Please tell me about your toddler's difficult questions.

I am the parent of an 18-month-old who is just starting to use words, and I'm reading the [really great] book The Emotional Life of the Toddler right now, to try and understand where he's coming from with the no's and the tantrums and such. There is a short mention in it of a difficult situation that the toddler presents that I realized I have NO IDEA how I would handle.

The example in the book is: "He loves being naked. He discovers his penis and is enamored of it. He notices and comments when he has an erection: 'Mommy, my penis is big. Touch it, right here.'" (p. 89)

The book does not say how the parent responds. I think I would probably just say "Not right now" or maybe "That's yours and you can play with it in your room" or something, but I honestly don't know what the best response would be -- I want my son to grow up with healthy sexual attitudes but I'm suddenly afraid that I'm going to freeze and say the wrong thing because I haven't anticipated these types of situations.

So what I'm looking for is true stories of awkward questions or situations posed by your toddler, what you did, and if you feel it was the right or wrong thing and why (and if it was the wrong thing, what you'd do differently after having thought about it).

My goal is just to be a little more prepared for these things as my toddler becomes more curious about the world and some of the things in it that are harder to explain and navigate.
posted by rabbitrabbit to Human Relations (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I just realized that the way I phrased it might make it seem like I only want help with this particular example. While I would like to hear how others have responded to this situation, I also and primarily want to know in general about what questions/situations parents have been taken off guard by and how they were handled. Thanks and will try not to threadsit now.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:33 PM on June 7, 2012

For younger toddlers a cheerful "Oh really?" and then a redirection (or just a redirection) has always worked really well for me for awkward stuff.

I've also had much success with "that's private, private things are for your bedroom".

They get mad about it because, well, they're toddlers, but after enough calm repetition they remember it and start to internalize it.

Really though as long as you're calm and don't make a huge deal about it whatever comes naturally will probably be okay.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:38 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a toddler but I recently read this book, which is a collection of letters that children have exchanged with Mr. Rogers. It doesn't deal with children's sexuality but it does talk about difficult conversations and general strategies for answering children's questions.
posted by cranberrymonger at 1:39 PM on June 7, 2012

My brother is 6 years younger than me. I clearly remember him doing something similar when I was a toddler, running around naked playing with his willy. Mum just calmly turned to him and said "We don't do that sort of thing in public, you do that in your room." That was the end of that. The main thing I took from it was that she did not act embarrassed and made it seem a normal thing to do, just with it's own rules, a bit like you poop in the toilet or don't pick your nose in front of people. Brother has been in a pretty normal 14 year long relationship and never got told off for public indecency so I think so I think he turned out OK.
posted by wwax at 1:40 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not sure if it is the cowards way out or not, but I often tell my 2.5 year old we will talk about a certain issue in a few minutes after we finish the task we're working on. This way I can formulate a plan while we clean up toys or whatever. In general I explain things as clearly as I can and try to make explanations as positive as possible.

In your example I would tell him that his penis was private and talk to him about how he gets to control who touches him. But fair warning, my little one is likely to tell men that they have a penis and she is a girl so she has a vagina. Makes for awesome extended family dinners.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 1:40 PM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think everyone has their own approach. I am very matter of fact about things. I name names and when asked I explain that she'll have breasts when 'she's a big girl/grown up' and that grown ups have hair, etc. She knows that her brother and her father have penises and that private parts are private and she's not to touch anyone else's. We haven't had the good touch/bad touch discussions yet, but it's getting time.

My child is a prolific masturbator and that has been somewhat difficult to manage - 'its a private activity that you do in your room but it's not wrong' is a hard concept. We call it "the private thing" and we tell our child to "go ahead, we'll give you some time alone". It seems to work so far.

On preview, I find it helpful to remember that not every question requires an immediate answer. It's OK to say, "good question, I'm going to have to think about what the best answer is." and then move on. Same goes for discipline once the kids are older (for example, a 2 yr old needs immediate consequence to learn but a 6 yr old likely does not.)
posted by PorcineWithMe at 1:42 PM on June 7, 2012

By move on I mean distract for the moment and return to the subject when you're composed. If you don't ever give answers the child will stop asking.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 1:43 PM on June 7, 2012

Similar to your example:
"I have a penis. Daddy has a penis. Mommy has a penis."
"Actually, I don't."
[After initial shock] "Where do you pee?"
"I have a hole that I pee out of."
"Can I see it?"

I actually had a hard time explaining that one because we're usually very matter-of-fact and open about body issues, but that was a line I didn't want to cross. Finally I told him that everyone decides what to do with their body and I wanted to keep that private. Eventually he stopped asking.

One my son's ENTIRE PRESCHOOL CLASS started asking me not only how, but WHERE his baby brother came out. I dodged that one.

On a different note, a question I found difficult to answer fully was, "People have babies, but where did the first person come from?" I explained that nobody really knows, and seem people believe in the big bang theory, and some people believe God made everything, but I struggled with this because I'm not religious and I realized that he had no concept of God. Ultimately I tried to explain it neutrally, and asked a more religious family member to have a conversation with him about God.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:38 PM on June 7, 2012

Mine stymies me when he asks what a tampon is. I like to start with simple explanations and then add detail as he shows interest, and I have a hard time coming up with a simple explanation for what a tampon is. For now, I've said things like, "It's something women use to keep their bodies clean." I loosely connected it to the idea of wombs and babies -- just to sort of sketch out the category. And now he thinks they are presents because they are wrapped.
posted by xo at 2:55 PM on June 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's funny, we've had remarkably little trouble with body stuff (but then we have told him where babies come from, in a very matter of fact way, and even what a period is), but death, now. Death has been hard. He lost a grandma, a great grandma, and a cat in one year and so we always seemed to be having funerals or dealing with loss. He doesn't like the idea of death at all, and since we're not of the "going to heaven" school, we've had to try to explain that bodies get recycled and become part of the earth, and no one knows if there's anything else. And that (white lie here) it happens when you are very very old.

He chewed on that, we had many similar discussions, and then he took to exclaiming he was never going to get old and die. Instead of distressing him, we said "Wow, that would be cool," and sort of left it at that. After awhile he stopped thinking about it so much, or at least asking about it. It's possible he tells himself that he goes to heaven; it's possible that he still thinks he might never die. That's stuff he's going to have to work out on his own. It's not like adults don't have the same problem.

You say "Help me not screw up my kid!" but you need to relax. Be as honest as it feels right to be. Go slow when explaining hard things and let the kid lead the way with their questions. If a question is just too hard to explain for their age, say so: tell them, it's something you need to be a grown up to understand and I'll tell you about it another time, then change the subject. We try not to do this, but then, there is stuff like murder and rape and genocide that he is not really ready for.
posted by emjaybee at 3:20 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend getting a copy of It's Not the Stork. We read sections together with our daughter when she asks those awkward questions about the birds and the bees.
posted by partylarry at 3:56 PM on June 7, 2012

One thing I've discovered is that it is important to figure out the question they are actually asking, and answer THAT question in an age-appropriate way. I found myself too often bogged down in too much detail or lost in tangents, and we'd just end up all flustered and frustrated. If my kids, as toddlers, wanted more information, they would/do ask, usually with the ever-present "why?" of childhood.

One day when my daughter was 3, we drove by a mosque on a Friday when prayer was letting out. She asked me what that place was, and I told her it was called a mosque - nothing else, just a simple answer. But she went on to ask more questions (what do they do there? Why don't they go to church like us? Etc). Ended up being quite the discussion of comparative religions, and probably one of the easiest, because I followed her lead. I try my best to do that when I'm answering any kid's questions, and it seems to work.

(On the penis thing, we tell our older son - who LOVES his penis - that penises are private, and if he wants to play with his penis, he can do so in the bathroom or his bedroom anytime, just please wash hands afterward. If we catch him with his hands down his pants, we say "please go wash your hands" and that's the end of it. We'll see if that works with his little brother.)
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 4:59 PM on June 7, 2012

That's right; you have a penis. Boys and grownup men have penises, but you know what? Girls and women don't have penises. We're built differently in a few ways.
That's right; you have a penis, and it's just exactly the way it should be, like you.

No thank you, sweetie, penises are private. Mommy and Daddy help you clean your body, but we don't play with your penis.

Your kid will or won't ask you weird, surprising questions. They are opportunities to teach your values. If you can't tell him about penises, and farting and what you and Daddy were doing in the living room the other night, how will he know to ask you about god, or morals, or why that kid at the pool didn't like him. Step up, and be as honest as you can. At 2 or 3, you can give pretty simple answers, and it's good practice for when you need to give complicated answers, like why Grammie uses certain words for certain people, and why Uncle Joey gets angry when he drinks beers. Talking honestly about important things like penises and farting is how genuine relationships are built.

My son is not who I expected him to be in many ways. He has a lot of my values, and expresses them in his own way. I did that to my parents, too.
posted by Mom at 6:37 PM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I really love this post on Making Light about explaining sex toys to a seven-year-old for thinking about these kinds of questions.
posted by linettasky at 8:13 PM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not that hard. Kindness, honesty, and respect for your baby will get you to the right answers every time.

This morning was "I want to touch your boobs!" "No, honey, boobs are private, they're not for other people to touch. They're not like hands or shoulders." "But I love boobs!" [at this point it is ok to laugh.]
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:53 PM on June 7, 2012

> Not sure if it is the cowards way out or not, but I often tell my 2.5 year old we will talk about a certain issue in a few minutes after we finish the task we're working on. This way I can formulate a plan while we clean up toys or whatever. In general I explain things as clearly as I can and try to make explanations as positive as possible.

What, coward's way out? No, this is totally brilliant. You're modeling behavior that communicates: a) We need to finish this thing before we can devote attention to the next thing. b) I'm not giving you a BS glib answer to shut you up, I'm taking you seriously. c) Some questions are more complicated than others.
posted by desuetude at 12:18 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My friend told her toddler many times that genitals are private and he was only allowed to play with his penis when other people were not around. It turned out she should have been more specific, though - one night she had a dinner party, and her son suddenly announced, "Can you all go home please? I would like to play with my penis now."

So yeah, while telling him private parts are for private times, you probably want to include the bit about TALKING about private parts.
posted by lollusc at 3:04 AM on June 8, 2012 [12 favorites]

Him: "Daddy, will you always be here?"

Me: "I will be here for you as long as you need me and I'm planning for a long time together."

Toddlers surprise you with deep and difficult questions, but if one thing is true about toddlers is that you will have the opportunity to be asked the question again. To that end, answering in layers is often wise. When asked where babies come from don't tell a stork story, but you also don't need to educate your 4 year old with a reproductive masters program. A generally factual but succinct answer often works and over time more elaboration comes about as they mature.
posted by dgran at 5:10 AM on June 8, 2012

Here is the deal - your kid is not perfect but s/he tries his best most of the time. And your job is to be exactly that - you do not have to know all the best answers or be perfect but try your best. Children understand things in their own way and no matter how clear you are there will be misunderstandings. (And simple answers to the direct question is a good start.) When those inevitable misunderstandings happens, because your goal is a not perfect but pretty good kid, you can model good behavior for misunderstanding - acknowledge misunderstanding, clarify, try again later. Some questions can be put off while you think of an answer, others you will figure out together overtime.

We are in the stage of asking the same question over and over and over again! Enjoy the ride.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 6:30 AM on June 8, 2012

Thanks for the input, guys! This is helpful.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:34 PM on June 8, 2012

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