How did the baby get in your tummy and how will it come out?
Linda, mother of four year old Joshua and two month old Adam, recently told me this story. “Mommy,” asked Joshua “where did Adam come from?” Linda thought for a couple of minutes about all the parenting articles she had read that tell us to be honest with our children. Then she took a deep breath and explained in great detail about the egg and the sperm, the uterus and the fetus and finally about the baby’s birth. After talking for several minutes, she stopped and waited for Joshua’s response. “Hmmm”, said Joshua “I thought that Adam came from your tummy”. Linda’s surprise must have been obvious because Joshua gave her a big hug and said, “it’s okay mommy, I remember all the photos of your big tummy with Adam in it.”
This funny little story has an important message in it. We should give our children only the information they really want and can handle, not what we think they want. This is especially true around issues of the “birds and the bees” which often come up when there is a baby on the way or newly arrived. In fact, as was the case with Joshua, he wasn’t even looking for information. Rather, he simply wanted Linda to validate what he already knew.
The mysteries of conception, pregnancy and giving birth are enormous for all children. It is important that we take all their questions seriously and answer them appropriately. However, sometimes as parents, our desire to teach our children interferes with our ability to listen to what they are really asking. This is especially true with young children. Joshua, for example, wasn’t really interested in the details that his mother gave him. Rather, he wanted reassurance that the baby in front of him had, at one time, been inside his mother’s “tummy.”
Here is an easy trick that can help you to figure out what your children are really asking — never answer a question directly. For example, when Joshua asked where Adam came from, Linda could have responded, “tell me where you think he came from.” Joshua’s response would have given Linda a very good idea about what he really wanted to know. Often young children already have the information they need and simply need you to validate it for them. In fact, sometimes hearing too many details can be scary for a young child.
When you do give a very young child information, stick to the most simplistic explanations possible. For example, if a very young child asks, “how will the baby get out of your tummy?” you might respond, “the doctor/midwife will help take the baby out of my tummy.” Much more information than this would probably be confusing and even frightening for a child three or four years old.
As they get older (about 6-10 years) children begin to demand more information and more details about where babies come from. As you give them this information, you should continue to do it in the same way as when they were younger-always asking them what they think first. Then cautiously give them a little more information, either to add to what they already know or to correct any mistakes in their understanding. Elementary school age children tend to have a very “black and white” view of things and they will frequently be quite happy with a few carefully chosen facts about conception, pregnancy and birth. They probably will not have the never-ending supply of “why” questions of younger children.
As you give children more information, you should be aware of how they are receiving it. For example, if you start to talk about how a baby is born, and the child looks away, changes the subject or becomes obviously uncomfortable, it might be a signal that he or she has had as much information as they can handle for now. You can tell the child that you’ll talk about this some more, at another time. This doesn’t mean that you should end the discussion forever. But sometimes you will need to come back to the subject several times, in short chats, before your child feels relaxed. Children need to learn the information at their own pace.
Talking to an older child (11 years and up) about conception, pregnancy and the birth process is probably more challenging for a parent than having this discussion with a younger child. But the topic of “making babies” is often an important one, especially for young teens because it is very connected to their interest in learning about sex. In fact, they may ask you questions about the conception and pregnancy of their sibling or even a friend or relative in an attempt to gain knowledge about sex, without asking directly.
At this point you will need to provide your child with as many details as they can handle. You will be able to sense how comfortable they are, in the same way as you would when they are younger (wanting to change the subject, giggling, seeming anxious.) This can be a perfect opportunity for you to have an open and meaningful discussion about any aspect of pregnancy, sex, abstinence or birth control that feel most comfortable for you and your family.
So, let’s summarize:
• Get a good understanding of what they really want to know, by asking your child more questions before answering their question directly.
• Give information slowly, a little bit at a time.
• Pay attention to how comfortable your child is with the information you are giving, and don’t give more than they are ready to hear.
• If necessary, have the same discussion several different times to help your child become more comfortable with the information.
• Older children and teens will require more information and facts than younger children so be prepared to talk openly with them.
Dr. Bartell is a psychologist and author who specializes in parent-child relationships. She is the Director of Havinganotherbaby.com.