Parents: Do you explain everything to your kids?

When Mr. Rilch and I were on our journey east last month, we took a side trip to visit friends in Maryland. “Tim” and “Jill” have two sons, ages 11 and 9. Well, Tim and Jill wanted to take Mr. Rilch and myself out to eat, but first we had to drop the older boy, “Randy”, at a friend’s house. (The younger one was at another friend’s house, but on the same street as his own.)

So on the drive over, while Randy was still in the van, the convo was as follows:

Jill: Yadda yadda yadda…the Duke lacrosse thing…

Me: Well, in a rape case, there are–


Me: Sorry…sorry…

Tim: I don’t want to have to explain to Randy what rape is!

So I cringed and remained silent for a few minutes. Then some other topic came up, and Mr. Rilch used another taboo word, I forget which one, which elicited another “AUGGGHHHH!” reaction from Tim, and another insistence that he didn’t want to have to explain it.

Now, I’m not letting myself off the hook on this one. IMO, my bad was that I should have been including Randy in the convo, because he was only going to be in the van for less than half an hour, while I had the whole night with the grownups. If I’d been giving my attention to him, these forbidden words wouldn’t even have come up.

But I’m still shaking my head over this “explain” business. Quite honestly, I didn’t get the impression that Randy even cared what we were talking about, and if anything got his attention, it was his dad yowling as if he’d sat on a bee. Beyond that, though, is every parent like this? You have to explain absolutely everything to your kids, and thoroughly, or else shield them from it? It reminds me of that Onion article about explaining 9/11 to your kids: all you have to do is start from about 1979, tell them what a jihad is, tell them who Reagan was…

In 1997 or whenever it was that the Monica Lewinski scandal was going on, I was working as a mother’s help. One day, I was tidying up the living room while “Mark”, the older boy, was playing with his Legos or something. The baby was napping, and the two girls were at some activity, so it was just me and Mark and the TV. Then the news at noon comes on.

Me: Okay, hold that thought; I wanna hear what they say about the President. […] Okay, carry on.

Mark: What did they say about the President?

Me: Well, he’s in trouble because he lied and said he didn’t do something, but he really did. Which is never a good idea, yanno!

Mark: What did he lie about?

Me: Well, you know when you’re married, you’re not supposed to kiss anyone but the person you’re married to. Well, he kissed a girl who worked for him, and he shouldn’t’a done that.

Mark: Oh. [goes back to playing with Legos]

See? All the explanation he needed. Now, if he’d asked me point blank, “What’s a blowjob?” then I would have said, “…Put it this way. It’s not something you’re supposed to do with someone you’re not married to.” And he probably would have accepted that, too. And then I would have warned his parents that he’d asked me that, and it was up to them how they wanted to react.

But that’s just it: I myself am not a parent. The ultimate responsibility does not lie with me. So I’m asking the parents of the SD: how do you handle these tough questions? And more to the point, what IS a tough question, in your estimation?

We’ll explain absolutely anything the kids ask a question about. Sex, science, politics, religion - you name it. In fact, IMO responding honestly and completely to any and all of your kids’ questions may well be one of the most important rules of child-raising. Hell, both of us being lawyers, I’m sure we go on to far greater lengths than they’d prefer!

And - surprisingly enough - they listen. One time not too long ago my teenage daughter referred to what was apparently a quite detailed response we gave to their question “Where do babies come from” when they were pre-school age. Jokingly said it scarred her for life - or at least taught them not to ask too many questions!

OTOH, we do not go out of our way to expose our kids to unpleasantness. I recall when the OK City bombing occurred, our oldest was in kindergarten. I heard other people say their kids were distressed about it. I don’t know if our kids knew it happened until some time later.

We’ve always answered any questions as best we could. My policy always been that if they understand something enough to ask a question, then they deserve a full and straight answer.

I guess I could have done a better job of responding to your questions.

If they didn’t want “rape” mentioned in front of their kid, WTF was the wife bringing up “the Duke lacrosse thing” for? Nothing wrong with having “adult” conversations with your friends, but that is why you were dropping the kid off at his friends.

I’ll bet your friend Tim is gonna be worrying over having “the talk” with his kids. Thought our approach was simpler - it was never an issue.

I also don’t see any problem “explaining” things like you did the Clinton/Lewinsky thing. Nothing wrong with an occasional euphemism or two.

But we don’t have any “forbidden” words in our house. I remember one dinner when the kids were in grade school, and they wanted to know what was the worst “swear.” That was a fun conversation. And another time they had a health class that mentioned masturbation, and they were supposed to come up with euphemisms. I think the wife and I impressed them with our repertoire. And anytime you can impress 3 teenagers, you’ve accomplished something.

We also, however, are very adamant as to time/place/manner restrictions. They can use different language with their friends than we prefer at the dinner table. And different language again around our religious relatives. Same way I speak differently on the golf course than around the dinner table.

I also insist that they know what they are saying. Actually reduced the frequency with which they said “sucks” “blows” or “boofoo Idaho.”

I won’t lie to them, but I’m not going to “explain” a blow job to a 6 year old.
The “where do babies come from” thing - youngest put his hand over my mouth to shut me up when I got to DNA splitting to introduce genetic diversity.

I explain anything my kids ask about in terms I think they’ll understand. Perhaps in my delusional world this means that when they reach their teenage years they’ll ask me about drugs, sex and whatever else and know I’ll give them a straight answer and therefore I know they’ll be getting good information.

I think your answer to the Clinton/Lewinski questions was spot on. Just enough detail without evading anything. I’m not sure I would have avoided the direct question of what a blowjob is, though. Since Mark was playing with Legos, he could have been anywhere from 4 to 10. I might explain it to a 10 year old, but obviously not to a 6 year old.

Unfortunately, I think an 11 year old or a 9 year old might just ask the pointed question, “what’s rape?”. I’d be inclined to answer without being evasive. Again, I’m purposely not shying from “uncomfortable” topics specifically because I want my kids to know I’ll always answer their questions.

I do think it’s ok for parents to sometimes say 'That’s private": for instance, my parents deflected questions about their income, and my mother was vauge for years about why her first marriage broke up. It wasn’t about what they thought we could handle, but about their own right to have some privacy. I always understood that distinction and respected it.

I’ll explain anything they want me to, plus some things they don’t. I always hated it when I was a kid asking questions and the adults wouldn’t even try to answer me.

We also explain things when thay come up. I second Dinsdale’s response; if you have an uncomfortable time explaining things to kids, then the conversation should have stayed away from adult topics.

A disconnect between seasoned parents and a childless couple, is my guess. Tim and Jill, like a lot of parents, probably have their own codes and verbal tapdancing for discussing questionable subjects. So on their own, or with friends who were hep to the jive, they could have continued discussing the matter in oblique terms. Mr. Rilch and myself, OTOH, only hang with other adults since my mother’s help job ended, so I’ve been out of the loop for a while, and he’s never been in it. So we don’t mince words.

IIRC, he was six.

Well, the thing is, I don’t think he cared what we were talking about. And there’s a strong possibility that he already knows the word, and has a sense of what it means. These are very bright kids, and my impression is that they have their own thing going on, and are not looking to their parents to explain everything. Tim has always been rather uptight anyway. I feel bad more because I made him uncomfortable.

That’s something else I wonder about. What about TV news? Do people send their kids out of the room, or what?

We’ll explain most things to MilliCal. She’s got a couple of books on reproduction and knows the mechanics pretty well, for her age. We don’t explain sexual practices to her – that definitely is for later. She knows that rape is a form of attack, and knows that adults sometimes do bad things related to sex, but that’s all she needs at the moment.

she knows that traphic violence exists in movies, but she doesn’t, of course, get to see it. It’s easy to make fun of – after you’ve seen the Coyote fall off a cliff or cut into tiny bits, you grasp the concept without being shown the bloody reconstructions of modern cinema.I explained to her that they filmed “Night of the Living Dead” with zombies eating people by showing them eating ham covered with chocolate syrup (the standby B&W stand-in for blood). Now we all picture zombies eating chocolate-covered ham, which might be even more sickening than eating actual people.

On a different note, perhaps your friend was wanting a few minutes w/o the usual litany of “Dad, what is…?” “Mom, why…?”


Yeah, but I don’t think they get a lot of that. As I said, these kids are very self-motivated. The next day, the younger boy showed me the summer reading list for his grade. Out of twenty books, they were to select five. Easy choices for him, since there were only five he hadn’t already read! So my impression is that Tim takes this “explaining” responsibility on himself, like “They’re smart, but I want them to be even smarter, so I’ll beat them to the punch…or stop them from getting ahead of their emotional development.”

We rarely watch the TV news. If we did, I would be very surprised if my kids would have been interested in it when they were young. If I wanted to watch it, I imagine I would have watched the 9-10:00 news, instead of the ones around dinner time.

I always figured the kids were gonna have plenty of time to learn about the ugliness in the world. No reason to rush them into it.

The thing that occured to me was maybe the kid doesn’t settle for answers like the ones in the OP. Some kids are more insistent than others. Maybe he keeps asking and asking and asking and asking and asking…

As with Dinsdale, we just don’t watch the news when the kids are around. Nor do I listen to news or talk radio in the car with them (ever since my 18-month-old daughter repeated “six killed in Baghdad!” from the radio).

My kids are 5 and 3, and will always ask about whatever is going on around them. So, for example, when I read a newspaper article this morning about the chancellor at my sister’s university having jumped to her death, I just showed it to my husband and referred to it obliquely instead of telling him about it, because I don’t want to explain suicide to a 5-yo. That can wait a little while.

I can quite understand not wanting to get into a discussion about ‘what rape is’ while riding in a car with other people, about to drop the kid off. That’s more something to talk about at home when there’s enough time. (For example, when my kid started asking about what menstrual pads were while we were shopping, I told her we could talk about it at home. Then we did.) However, most 11-yos should probably already know about what such a thing is–though I certainly would not discuss every case that comes along with them.

I am willing to discuss everything with my kid, but would prefer to be able to put some things off until I feel that she is old enough to really understand some things. Obviously I won’t be able to do that with everything, but I see no reason to bring things up in front of her that she isn’t really prepared for yet.

We do try to explain whatever the kids ask about. They don’t run into too many things that I really don’t want them to know. Dweezil really asks few questions - he’s a bit too clueless. Moon Unit is observant enough that she does ask the uncomfortable questions. She knows far more about reproduction than I did at that age! She also knows what “lesbian” and “gay” mean, and asks political questions (she wants to write to Dubya about his misdeeds, for example).

OK, we explain within limits. When Dweezil asked what an “adult toy store” was as we drove past one on what passes for Dauphin County PA’s “red light district” (a strip mall on Route 22)… well, he was about 7. I lied like a rug. Did you know that adult toys are gadgets adults like to play with like TVs and VCRs and stereos? I honestly don’t know what I’d say if we were to drive past that same strip mall today with Moon Unit in the car (I don’t really like lying to a kid if I can avoid it, and she’d probably see right through the TV/VCR bit…).

Ack! That is a tough one, Mama Zappa. I said upthread that I was in favor of explanations, but I probably would have handled it the same way you did (if I’d been able to think that fast.) BTW, how old are Dweezil and Moon Unit?


Okay, Dweezil’s 7, or was at the time…how old is Moon Unit?

My own experience supports your thought – nothing gets my kids on the case faster than the tiniest suggestion that there is something they ought not to know about in the conversation.

Truthfully, I would far rather explain what rape is than have him ask his older brother or some other kid. Or better yet, the people he is going to stay with while we go out. The most awkward situations I have been in yet were: 1) a friend of my younger son asking me about death in reference to our having buried a cat not long before. If you think people are weird about talking about sex with kids, just get them started on death and dying; and 2) a friend of my elder son asking me about religion and eating restrictions.

In the situation you describe I would have let it go and then changed the subject until the Relentless Questioner was out of the car, as the chances are that RQ would forget about it shortly unless his attention were drawn to it. If he brought it up right then, I have had very good luck with “listen, you are about to get out of the car, can it wait until later please?”.

What you describe of the Lewinsky incident is probably enough for a 5 to 7 year old. A nine year old probably knows people kiss people not their wives and probably you could not get away with that. By eleven, it’s likely that some reference to power relationships is going to be necessary.

My own children find stories of bad things happening to children – death, injury, abuse – very upsetting and the subject has to be handled when it comes up.

I don’t watch news anymore unless I am alone, not because of the kids, but we do watch the kids’ news show they have here with the kids. It’s pretty much the same news only they explain it at more length (a blessing for me) and the footage, while not Disney-fied, has got less violence.