How To Answer Kids' Toughest Questions

How To Answer Kids' Toughest Questions
Grandson talking to his grandmother
Grandson talking to his grandmother


Part of what it means to be a kid is asking a lot of questions. From "Why is the sky blue?" to "Where do babies come from?" it seems that the wheels of their curious minds never cease turning.But while some questions, like where babies come from, have definite factual answers, some questions are harder to answer—especially when kids get older and they're more attuned to social pressures, family finances, and relationships. We spoke to New York psychologist and author Dr. Susan Bartell, Psy.D, to find out what you should really say when your grandkids lob a difficult question your way. Her first piece of advice: Follow the parents' lead. "It's never in your best interest to contradict the parents," says Dr. Bartell. "It's not your job to co-parent." You need to answer questions in a way that is honest, but also doesn't contradict or belittle the parent. Here, seven sticky questions and how to answer them.

"Do you think I'm fat?"This question falls into the same category as "Am I pretty?" "Do you think I'm smart?" and other delicate issues where kids want you to weigh in on who they are. "A lot of kids test the validity of things parents have said by asking grandparents the same question," says Dr. Bartell. The child's mom might answer the "Am I fat?" question with "No, you look beautiful." "But what the child thinks is, 'Mom said that because she's my mom.' They don't feel they have gotten an authentic answer, so they go to the grandparent."

What to say: "The first thing you should say to your grandchild is, 'Why are you asking me that?'" says Dr. Bartell. "Kids will usually say why and that can be a jumping off point to have an honest conversation." You can also say to your grandchild, "This sounds like something you are really worrying about, why?" or "Do you think you're fat?" All these approaches allow you to delve deeper into why the question was asked, which is more important than the answer itself.

"Are you going to die?""This is hard because it is something that grandparents also worry about themselves," says Dr. Bartell. It's important to answer this question in an authentic way that is somewhat honest. Young children generally ask the question in a hypothetical way and may turn it into "What happens when we die?" Older kids, says Dr. Bartell, are more in-tune with the aging process and notice when grandparents are having trouble doing tasks, such as driving or walking, or aren't quite the same as they used to be.

What to say: If you are vibrant and in good health you can say, "Most people don't die until they are very, very old, and I don't plan on anything happening to me for a long time." If you are on the older side or have health problems, says Dr. Bartell, say, "I have no plans to die right now. One day I will die, but that's why it's great that we spend time together and have memories now." Don't lie, but show the positive side. In terms of older children worrying about your doing tasks, talk to them about their fears and concerns. Are their concerns legitimate? Be honest with yourself, and with them.

"Who is your favorite?"Every child wants to be the favorite, and, in fact, a lot of grandparents want to be the favorite, too. "Some grandparents will tell one grandchild that they're the favorite, so then the grandchild favors them,' says Dr. Bartell. "But it's not your job to be the favorite grandparent, It's your job to be the best grandparent you can be—to all your grandkids." Grandparents should answer the question in a way that satisfies the child, but doesn't cause problems.

What to say: "You're all my favorite for different reasons," is the best answer to give, says Dr. Bartell. Then say something specific that you love about each child as in, "I love your sense of humor, and I enjoy watching sports with your brother." Tell your grandkids what makes each of them unique and special in your eyes.

"Are my parents going to get divorced?Every child worries when their parents argue, and what seems like a huge fight to the kids, is often very small to the parents. The best thing a grandparent can do is assess whether or not the fear is well-founded, says Dr. Bartell. And if the fear is well-founded, it's important to contain yourself if you're worried. "If your grandchild is coming to you, it's your responsibility not to freak out. Instead call the parents after you talk to the child, not in front of them," says Dr. Bartell.

What to say: "When this happens, grandparents can say, 'Tell me what you're worried about? What happened?" says Dr. Bartell. From there, assess what happened to see if it was a normal fight. Grandparents can also be pro-active if the child is really concerned and say, "I can see why you're worried, let's go talk to you mom or dad about it."

"Did my parents do bad stuff when they were kids?"Grandparents. should be very careful answering this question. "Most parents don't tell their kids what they did when they were younger in terms of drugs, drinking, and sex," says Dr. Bartell. Parents have very definite opinions on what they want their kids to know and what they don't. Grandparents should not tell grandkids—they should defer to the parents and let them answer the question.

What to say: "You should be vague and can even keep it lighthearted," says Dr. Bartell. Say something like, "Your mom was a handful when she was young, but you'll have to ask Mom for specifics."

"Why are my parents so mean?""It's never okay to say that your grandchild's parents are mean," says Dr. Bartell. "It will only drive a wedge between you and your adult kids, and negatively affect the relationship." Even if you think your grandchild is right, you cannot contradict the parents.

What to say: The best answer is something like, "You know what, I'm sure your parents did whatever they did for the right reason and because they love you." If you do think your children are being too hard on the grandkids, speak to your child about it in private. And if you find that you really have a hard time being at your kids' house because you disagree with their parenting rules, suggest your grandchild come to your house for an afternoon or a weekend.

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