A parent I know was talking to their three year old about “stranger danger”. After explaining in detail the dangers of approaching a stranger, the parent asked the little boy if he had any questions. He looked up at his mother and said, “Yes, what’s a stranger look like?”
Parents have the best intentions when discussing important issues with their child but are often left feeling that either their child didn’t comprehend their message or, as with older kids, the teen was irritated by the conversation or, worse, not even listening. When it comes to talking to kids, timing is everything. So, what is the appropriate age to discuss controversial topics like the birds and the bees, world problems, and safety (such as stranger danger) with children?
First, clarify your own beliefs and put together a framework that reflects the morals and values you want for your children. Realize as uncomfortable as it may be, it is necessary to have these talks with your children. Let them learn from you first, not other kids on the playground or the Internet.
A good time to begin talking to your child is when they ask their first question about a topic. Start by asking what they know. This will give you a good starting point. For example if a young child asks, “Where did I come from?” Ask, “Where do you think you came from?” Their answer will tell you what they already know, so you can correct misconceptions and/or give age-appropriate information.
While most of us know to consider the child’s maturity when deciding to broach serious topics, many parents forget to factor in the child’s anxiety level. A child who is a worrier can struggle with concepts that raise their anxiety, such as worrying about a stranger trying to kidnap them or worrying about a school shooting.
One way to help an anxious child is to let them lead with their questions. Don’t tell them more than they ask, unless it is to reassure them. You want to make sure you don’t talk about ideas they are not mature enough to relate to or connect with.
In regard to discussing awkward topics such as The Birds and the Bees, many parents have had success by having a short conversation with their child and then leaving a book for them to read when they are alone and comfortable. There are several books for various ages offered on Amazon if you Google “Birds and the Bees for Kids”.
Look for teachable moments; for example, using a current story in the news about students in trouble for sexting can be a jumping off point to open dialogue with your teen. Ask them their thoughts about the article and this in turn will give you a chance to make your points about the consequences of such actions.
Yes, you compete with their friends, TV and Google but it is worth taking the time to talk to your kids about serious subjects — they are listening, even when they roll their eyes and pretend they can’t hear you.
This article first appeared in the Light Magazine.