Telling the truth to your kids

I clicked on the link as soon as I scrolled across it: “How to Read Racist Books to Your Kids” is a hard title to ignore. Especially if you have, in fact, ever grabbed an old favorite off the shelf and sat - all excited - to read it to your kids only to stumble across language or a situation or illustrations or a characterization that make you sweat a bit, that make you hope and pray your kids don’t notice and for goodness sake, don’t ask. But in your own head, you’re wondering why you don’t remember the book being so darned offensive. Is this really what your parents read to you a zillion times?

In the article, Stephen Marche shares the story of his 6-year-old son asking why the pirates in the Asterix the Gaul comic had a gorilla. It wasn’t a gorilla, of course, but “a grotesque caricature of an African who does indeed more closely resemble a gorilla than a person.”

Faced with this situation, Marche considers three options: “1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person. 2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism, how the economics of exploitation in sub-Saharan Africa led to an ideology of racism… 3) Say, ‘I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla’ and flip to the next page.”

Marche chooses #3. While we laugh about this interchange, of course, racism - in all its malevolent forms - isn’t funny. Which Marche knows - and which is why he avoids it.

I’ve been there. I’ve had those moments when my kids have heard something in a story or even on the news and I panicked, trying to flip past and ignore. I’ve had those moments when I’ve purposely tried to change the trajectory of a conversation so it wouldn’t lead to questions I had no idea how to answer in “age-appropriate” language.

And yet, I’ve never felt right when I’ve done that. While I don’t think we need to push our kids into situations or expose our children to inappropriate material where they will learn too much too soon, when we encounter it, parents need to deal with it. We can’t be afraid of our kids’ questions. After all, one of our main jobs, our primary purposes, is to be the truth-tellers and question-answerers and worldview-shapers for our kids. And all that comes from engaging and conversing and questioning together.

I’m not going to lie: all this is terrifying. Because, what if we get it wrong? What if we say too much? What if we scar them for life? What if…? What if…? What if…?

Marche owns up to this fear in his article. “I don’t want to explain the human gorilla and all the chains of horror that went into that caricature because I’m afraid of the follow-up questions,” he writes.

And I get that. But I also believe that when God tells us not to fear a zillion times in Scripture, this applies to parenting, specifically to not fearing our kids’ questions. And I’m pretty sure that when Jesus invited the little children to come to him, he was prepared to face some tough, kid-style questions.  

If all we can offer our kids is a white lie and a flip of the page, we may avoid a bit of awkwardness and we may preserve a bit of “innocence,” but we also miss out on something much greater: the opportunity to develop trust, to become the go-to person in our children’s lives and to teach our kids that “I don’t know, but it stinks…” is sometimes the best answer.

In a world as confusing and full of questions as ours, that’s not an opportunity to take for granted.

What Do You Think?

  • How have you dealt with tough questions from your kids?
  • How can parents determine when a child is “ready” to talk about difficult topics?
  • What other things should we not fear, in accordance with God’s instructions?


Comments (4)

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“to teach our kids that ‘I don’t know, but it stinks…’ is sometimes the best answer.” Words to live by, Caryn.

For me and my kids, I’ve tended toward Marche’s second option. It takes some doing to make it age appropriate, and I haven’t always been as clear and successful as I’d hoped, but it’s still worth the effort.


P.S. I loved the creativeness of the Asterix and Obelix stories, but those types of caricatures are inexcuseable. I mean really now, the stories were written in the latter half of the 20th c. for crying out loud!

At my age it is more a question of reading to my Grand Kids. Their mother is a Christian so the books in the house are the ones we read to her as a child, mostly the Narnia series, black beauty,Wind in the Willows etc. The ones I have a problem with are the books that get sent home from school that are very PC ! in fact sometimes so ‘correct’ are they that they bear no resemblance to life as WE know it in New Zealand! Even some of the books by Maori authors are slanted to Maori religion (which is called ‘culture’) and the kids are taught that it is racist to say anything about another culture so they by inference see all religions as being O.K. and as good as each other! These are the sort of books I find need to be talked over with the kids & the ones they want to talk about!

“How have you dealt with tough questions from your kids?”

Normally I try to field them straight on. But it can be difficult at time. What I don’t want to do is pretend that real life isn’t around us.
And to tell the truth, most of my tough questions have come more from the bible than any other source.

“How can parents determine when a child is “ready” to talk about difficult topics?”

I believe a child can be “ready” to talk about difficult topics but they have to be at their level.
“Mommy is growing your sister in her tummy because that is how God made mommies and yes, you were grown there too.”
Even same-sex marriage can be discussed but it just depends on the child and what level of detail you go into. To a 4 year old, perhaps all you tell them is, “God defined marriage as one man and one woman and anyone that marry;s differently than that, don’t believe God’s way is right. But God loves them and you should too.”

Of course it’s not always easy to do this. And I have never had a problem telling my kids that I don’t know. But I also follow it up with let me find out and I will let you know what I find. This way they find that it’s okay to not know something but it’s not okay not to give an answer.

“How have you dealt with tough questions from your kids?”

There are two kinds of these questions: those to which I know the answer (which is what this article really addresses) and those to which I don’t.

When my children were young, for the former, I found that giving them a concise answer, in language they can understand, is nearly always successful. You don’t need to give a lot of background, simply answer the question. I’ve found that following up with another question that elicits a response from the child can help you ascertain how they feel about your answer. (For example, “that really wasn’t a very nice way to think, was it”). If the child responds and is ready to move on, then you’ve provided the right amount of information. If you see their eyes glaze over, you’ve given too much, but that’s OK, they will ignore it anyhow. If you haven’t given enough, eliciting a response from them invites them to ask for additional clarification.

If it is a question to which I don’t know the answer, I tell the child so. If it is appropriate to suggest that you go together to investigate the topic, the child’s response will allow you to gauge how much they care.

One thing is for sure: kids are smart. If you say “I don’t know” and turn the page, they will sense that this is a topic not “appropriate” for discussion with you. That is NOT what you want. They will go elsewhere looking for the information.

On the other hand, if your small child learns that he/she can come to you with questions and get a straight and honest answer, she will continue to do so when life become much more complicated. And that is the most important thing of all.

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