“Mommy, is that a boy or a girl?”

Originally posted May 19, 2009

You just never know when your kid will come out with one of those marvelous questions guaranteed to make your heart do a little jig. The last time it happened to me we were out to dinner. After being greeted by our server we were led to our table. The greeting lasted five seconds, tops, but it made quite an impression on my eight-year-old.

“Mommy, is that a boy or a girl?” Holly whispered, after our server left to retrieve a pitcher of water.

“You know what? You’re very observant,” I replied, as my ten-year-old son, Noah, listened in. “In fact,” I admitted, “I had the very same question the first time I met Eve.* I learned that Eve is a man who wants to be a woman,” I simply explained. I’d been enlightened by a friend of Eve’s, and I wanted my kids to understand that I wasn’t simply assuming that Eve was a transgendered individual (someone assigned a sex, usually at birth and based on his genitals, who feels that this is a false or incomplete description of himself so he identifies himself with the opposite gender).

Apparently satisfied with my explanation, Holly shrugged and turned her attention to her menu and made sure that I understood that she wanted the green soda this time. I did ask the kids if they had any other questions. They didn’t, so I left the subject alone, for now. I knew the wheels were still turning, but they were ready to move on. I’ve learned that children seem to require time to digest information, a few bits at a time.

Many parents wonder how to recognize that their child is ready for certain information. Simply put, if he’s curious enough to ask for it, he’s ready. A good rule of thumb is to answer the actual question at hand, dispensing a few details at a time so he can absorb them. Your kid’s eyes glazing over? This is a strong clue that you’re heading into “TMI (too much information) territory,” as Noah likes to put it, so further discussion should be tabled for a while.

Some parents believe that no time is a good time to discuss certain subjects they consider taboo, however. You may be able to redirect a child’s attention temporarily, but be aware of the downside of putting off these discussions for too long or refusing to address them at all. After all, whose voice do you want him to hear? He’s bound to get his questions answered one way or another. If your voice is there in the mix your child will stand a much better chance of being well-informed, confident about how to handle sticky situations, and, in some cases, safer. This is especially true when it comes to topics like substance use and sexuality, which have relevance way before kids hit Middle School, these days.

Before you can take a stand on any issue or offer any guidance to your kids, however, you need to get your own questions answered.

I’ve found that reference librarians are fabulous resources for materials on any subject about which your kids may conjure questions, but make sure you read the books before deciding which ones to share with your kids. You’ll want to make sure the authors’ values jive with yours and that you don’t expose your kids to details you or they aren’t ready to delve into yet.

I come from the ‘knowledge is power’ school of thought when it comes to furnishing kids with information, and believe that the same principle applies to parenting. Once you’re armed with information, your kids’ barrage of questions will feel less like bullets and more like opportunities to appreciate and encourage their burgeoning curiosity about their bodies, other people and the fascinating world in which they live. These are precious moments when you get to contribute to the spiritual and emotional growth of your children

* Name changed for privacy reasons.

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