"Just when you think you've got this whole parenting thing sorted, your children will lob a question from out of nowhere that will stump you."
Just when you think you've got this whole parenting thing sorted, your children will lob a question from out of nowhere that will stump you.
One minute they'll be happily making a unicorn from an empty tissue box and plastic bottle, the next they're posing a question with political, social, psychological, and existential ramifications that the parenting manuals never mentioned.
While the natural parental urge is to answer 'Ummm… How about we watch Frozen? Again.' these confronting questions are valuable insights into your children's development. They're also an opportunity to broaden their perspectives of themselves and the world around them.
Here are some curly questions I've been asked and the answers I would have given if I'd been more prepared.
1. Do you like my… (insert dress/dance/summersault/artwork)
Often the truthful answer is, 'It's okay, but it is your 400th attempt this week and your technique could use some work.'
But a parent's words are powerful and unnecessary criticism can crush a child's sprits. At the same time, it's not helpful to set up expectations of endless and undeserving praise.
This is an opportunity to gently challenge your children's assumption that they need external validation to feel like they have done a good job. Praise can become a toxic addiction so we are doing our kids a favour if we break their habits early.
Instead, I now turn these questions around and say, 'Do YOU like your dress/dance/summersault/artwork?'
If my daughter says 'yes' then I tell her that it's her work so her opinion matters most. If she says 'no' we can then talk about what she'd like to do differently next time and the importance of practising.
2. Do you think I'm beautiful?
No matter how much you've downplayed princess culture, little girls quickly learn that our culture prizes girls' physical appearance.
While this can be a disheartening sign that your daughters have started to worry about their physical appearance at an early age, it's also an opportunity to broaden girls' attitudes about what constitutes beauty.
I always answer 'yes, you are beautiful' and then follow up with 'And do you know what makes you beautiful?'
We then talk about the things that are part of beauty, but have almost nothing to do with physical beauty. 'You're beautiful because you always try your best. You're beautiful because you can read and count. Using your manners makes you beautiful. You're beautiful when you draw and sing.'
It might be tempting to dismiss this question altogether by telling your daughter that physical beauty doesn't matter. But I fear that in a world that values beauty so highly, my daughter may conclude that I'm avoiding this question because she is not beautiful.
3. 'Why aren't I as good as [insert friend's name]'
If you're a Tiger Parent the only answer to this (and every) question is 'Because you're weak and you don't work hard enough'.
To those of us who have heard the battle hymn of the Tiger Parent, and responded with a resounding 'whatevs,' questions about ability are the perfect opportunity to broaden a child's understanding of their own talents and to appreciate differences.
Turn this into a conversation about ability: that everyone is different, and that if they want to be better at something, then they need to practice at it.
It's also important to talk about their motivation; to inculcate a sense of pleasure in their own abilities and capacity to improve, rather than just being better than someone else and 'winning'.
I try to encourage my daughter to find intrinsic worth in the things she does, rather than endlessly comparing herself others. If she only does something in order to be better than others then chances are she'll end up succeeding, but finding the whole enterprise meaningless.
4. 'Am I special?'
Unless you want to raise a child with an oversized view of their own importance and an inflated sense of entitlement in the world, you will be inclined to answer 'No. You're no more special than the other 8 billion or so humans who you share the planet with.'
But that can be a bitter pill for a child who's still close to that developmental phase when they're the centre of the universe.
We need a kindergarten version of the speech given by US English teacher David McCullough Jr, who gave a commencement speech to students at Wellesley High School English that began with, 'You're not special'.
McCullough's speech, which went viral, argued for selflessness: that thinking you're special will only get in the way of connecting with others.
The age-appropriate version of this sentiment is to answer that yes, they are special — and so is everyone else. Of course, that negates the meaning of special, but your children will probably only realise that when they're much older — and therefore in a position to understand how believing that you're superior to your peers is isolating and is unlikely to lead to happiness.
5. 'Freddy said that I'm stupid/ugly/smelly/other random insult'
This one is not a question as such, but kids are still looking for a response.
While answering that 'Freddy is a little sh*t whose views count for nought' is perfectly correct, it's not particularly constructive. It's better to use this as an opportunity to teach your children to rely on their own judgements rather than listening to others.
I respond by asking my daughter, 'Do you think you're stupid?' She will inevitably say 'no' and then I tell her that it doesn't matter what Freddy says; it only matters what she thinks about herself.
I then follow up with comedy gold that always gets a laugh, 'If Freddy said you were a giraffe would that make you a giraffe?'
Between hysterical giggles, my daughter answers 'Daddy! Are you being silly?'