"Where do praying mantises go in the winter?"
"Where do orb weaver spiders live?"
"How far away is the sun?"
"How do you make a cartoon?"
These are questions that survive in my browser history. These questions were all asked in a single day. Hi, I'm Jamie and I have a 4-year-old. Kids ask crazy questions. Kids ask difficult questions. Kids ask question after question after question, and sometimes that will absolutely exhaust you, leaving you to think we should all be paying our teachers way, way more because can you even imagine this times 30?
At the same time, answering kids questions can be a ton of fun. For starters, hey! Where do praying mantises go in the winter? Do they die? Do they live? If they die, how do we keep getting praying mantises? I want to know these things and I wouldn't necessarily think to even ask the question. (Turns out that the insects die, but their eggs don't, and you can see praying mantis egg cases on trees in the winter. Neat, huh?) For another thing, your kid's questions give you opportunities to engage your child and spark a love of learning. But I fully own that, being a Ravenclaw, these sort of interactions are in my wheelhouse. If you're questioning how to handle your child's questions — be they the simple, factual ones, or the big scary questions children ask — the approach is usually pretty much the same. Sometimes you can employ all 10 of these suggestions, other times just one or two; as with all things, use your judgment. You've got this.
Validate Their Questions
For children, validation from adults is like a cookie for their little baby souls. Letting them know that you like it when they ask questions and that curiosity is a good quality is a good way to nurture curiosity in the future. Curiosity: It apparently kills cats, but it's great for kids.
Ask Why They Thought To Ask
This is especially good for the difficult, complex, "Very Special Episode of Blossom" type questions they'll be asking, because it will give you the context to know how best to answer, what they're learning about, how, and from whom. This will also give you the opportunity to begin to gauge how much they know about a given subject. Sneaky you, simultaneously engaging and encouraging your child all while reigning as much control over the situation as possible.
Ask What They Think The Answer Might Be
This will continue to give you, the adult, context with which to provide the best answer. This will also give your child the opportunity to apply (and develop) some critical and/or creative thinking skills. It also gives them a mini introduction to the scientific method by prompting them to come up with a hypothesis. And/plus/also, hearing kids come up with ideas with little background information can be profoundly entertaining.
Give Full (But Not Long-Winded) Answer
My personal rule of thumb about answering my kids' questions is that I try to answer as honestly and fully as I can in one minute or less. That's not to say the ensuing conversation or follow-up questions should fall in that time-frame. Hopefully they won't! But you also don't want to launch right into a master's class on the subject before you provide a simple introduction, right? Because you will almost certainly either confuse them or bore the curiosity right out of them. I think of answering the Big Important Questions, initially, as providing a book jacket version of the subject that will encourage them to take a deeper look.
Keep Your Answer Age Appropriate, But Keep An Open Mind As To What Age Appropriate Means
When deciding whether certain information is age appropriate for a child, think about it in terms of this: Is this going to be difficult for them to understand (intellectually, socially, or emotionally) or is this simply going to be difficult for me to explain? If the latter, then what about it is difficult? Is it a difficult concept to articulate or am I simply uncomfortable? If the former, can I work through that; and if the latter, how can I overcome my discomfort? Even before they can speak, children can understand more than we give them credit for a lot of the time. That trend continues as they age. So don't be afraid to present your child with challenging material. You'll be surprised how often they will rise to meet it.
Admit If You Don't Know The Answer
This is incredibly difficult for some people to do. Sometimes it's a matter of pride ("I'm the parent! And parents know everything!"), embarrassment ("I should totally know this and I'm clueless."), or feeling that you can't not answer so you just come up with something on the fly that might not be completely accurate. But the beauty of being a parent is that you have regular and privileged access to your children, so even if you don't know something in the moment it's totally fine because you're going to have plenty of opportunities to get back to them (although good luck telling a little kid that you'll "get back to them" aka "not give them the information they want right at the exact moment they want it").
Google Is Your Friend
We basically live in the future now, guys. We carry what would once have been considered super computers around in our damn pockets. A literal world of information is at our fingertips. Use it!
The Library Is Your Happy Place
Libraries: They're the Google you can visit! The added benefit of using the library for research purposes is that you can pop on over to the children's section and pick up books that speak to whatever you've been talking about. This is how we go beyond simply answering questions and move onto "developing interests."
Remember The Answer And Connect It To Other Things Later On
Don't let the conversation die after your first foray into it. Connect it to what you read and watch together, or to something that's going on in your child's life. You don't have to shoe-horn it into every possible interaction with your child, but keep an eye out for opportunities to organically remind your child of previous conversations as a way to introduce new subjects or points of view. You will likely have myriad opportunities to do this with the Big Scary Questions in particular. Speaking of Big Scary Questions...
Don't Be Scared Of Questions Or Answers
Because questions are questions and the truth is the truth. That's all. The beauty of being a parent is that you not only give your child the information they need to navigate their world, you also give them their compass.