Tackling the Tricky Questions
Those tricky questions! They come when we least expect them and at the most inconvenient of circumstances. How can parents tackle the tricky questions from their kids?
I still remember the time when our young son started talking in detail about his recent, medically-required circumcision. It was at the dinner table, when a friend of ours was visiting! Fortunately, our guest responded very graciously, and we were able to steer the conversation onto an easier topic.
Although his timing was not so great, we were pleased that our son felt safe enough to speak with us about absolutely anything that was on his mind.
We can’t always predict when the more awkward questions or comments will come from our kids. But it’s important to use every opportunity that arises to affirm a climate of trust and receptivity in our families.
Our children need space and time; wasteful, leisurely time in a parent’s presence, even a bit of boredom, so that the questions mulling in the back of their mind can bubble to the surface.
This atmosphere of trust builds slowly and around mundane daily interactions. With our children, sometimes there have been several hours in each other’s company doing and talking about ordinary things before the really meaty stuff has emerged.
It’s not enough to simply be willing to answer our children’s questions about sex, sexual morality, and the realities of life. We have to actively foster an environment that allows the questions to be asked. If a parent doesn’t make the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with each child often, even daily, then there simply won’t be the ‘space’ for the child’s questions to emerge.
For parents, the art of accompanying their children begins at the child’s birth. Simple, daily interactions establish the most important ingredient: an emotionally close and trusting relationship.
Here are five tips for talking with your kids about sexuality and other sensitive topics should a question or comment arise.
1: Understand the question.
Kids ask questions all the time. Because of our sensitivity to the topic of sexuality and sexual attraction, we can read more meaning into their questions than is there.
It’s always a good idea to explore the background of the question before diving in. Perhaps they’ve simply seen something on TV or have overheard an adult conversation. Alternatively, they may be looking for reassurance about or are experiencing confusion about their own sexuality, or that of a classmate.
A few thoughtful enquiries will help us understand what the real question is. From then we can determine how much our child already knows and what information he or she is seeking.
2: React positively and age-appropriately
So often our embarrassment or lack of confidence can lead us to react harshly. When children ask sensitive questions or we discover them watching something of which we don’t approve, it’s important to remain calm.
A negative reaction that puts the child down or dismisses his curiosity can have a long-lasting and undesired impact. If we want our children to come to us for answers – rather than go to friends at school or the internet – we must make sure our child always feels valued by taking his or her questions seriously and answering them as honestly as we can.
And if you don’t know the answers, just say so. And maybe offer to assist your child in finding them out together.
3: Be prepared and informed
We can be prepared by being clear in our understanding of what the Church teaches as well as being aware of some key facts about human sexuality and attraction:
- God created us male and female, so our sexuality is essential to our humanity and our journey with God.
- Sexual intercourse is a sacred body language intended exclusively for men and women who have made a life-long commitment to each other with an openness to children. This is called ‘marriage’. Sex in any other context distorts and misrepresents this meaning, whether it be between two men, two women, singles or people who are married to someone else.
- All of us, whether same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted, married, single or celibate, struggle to live our sexuality in a way that gives honour to God and protects our dignity as beings created in God’s likeness. We’re all growing.
- The vision for life and the moral code of the Church applies equally to everyone. There’s not one rule for one group and a different rule for the others – all Christians are called to follow Christ and live according to his teachings.
- All Christians are called to follow Christ and live according to his teachings. Same-sex attracted and gender-questioning people often have endured much suffering. This suffering may often include them being bullied or teased because of their situation – this is never right and should not be tolerated.
- Being same-sex attracted or gender questioning doesn’t change the fact that a person is genetically male or female. Even for those who are genuinely intersex (ie. are chromosomally ambiguous), it doesn’t change the fact that they are children of God and are deeply loved.
4: Join a Village
It’s virtually impossible to do it all as parents on our own. Even when we create the ideal home setting with positive modelling, two parents are not enough. We need the help of other like-minded adults because the chances are that at least one of our kids will need an adult other than their parents for some questions.
Plan ahead and start building a community of value-aligned families so that you can support each other in this task.
5: Pray, Pray, Pray
Prayer is foundational to our task as Catholic parents. It is also essential to our own sanity!
God entrusts us with the care of his children. But it is a burden of responsibility that God requires us to hold lightly.
Our children will eventually become independent in their decisions. Almost certainly they will make choices that distress and worry us. It’s imperative at these times that we lean into God, seeking guidance and strength to love in a way that always draws our children closer to God rather than driving them away.
If they don’t ask, when do we tell?
One of the dilemmas we parents face is the desire to introduce our children to the various aspects of sexuality on our own timetable. We’d prefer to wait until we judge each child is ready and to introduce concepts in a particular order beginning with puberty and the changes they will experience, followed later by the purpose and meaning of sexual love in the context of marriage. We’d prefer not to have to address many other topics at all!
Unfortunately, the predatory nature of the pornography industry means that even if we successfully quarantine our children from it, our children will have friends who have been prematurely sexualised.
Compulsory school curriculums will mean that children will be exposed to concepts irrespective of their individual readiness for them.
Today’s world is a confusing place for children when it comes to sexuality. As parents, we often feel overwhelmed by the task of raising our children in a culture that is so hostile to our Catholic values.
Moreover, many of our children will experience some measure of sexual confusion or have an encounter that impacts their sexual identity profoundly.
We can’t prescribe what’s best for every child in every family but every parent should be proactive rather than reactive.
It is preferable to be pre-emptive in our parenting so that we can be the source of information for our children rather than mere reactionaries after their exposure to a harmful attitude or misinformation.
Our most important task as parents is to ask for God’s help and guidance, seek expert advice, then prepare our children as best we can in the ways and at the times we have prayerfully discerned is best given the circumstances.
None of us will get it completely right. Sometimes we will mess it up. But knowing we have tried our best, we can leave the outcome in God’s hands and accept his peace; a peace which will sustain us and help us bring Christ’s presence to our homes as our children muddle their way through to adulthood and beyond.
A Bridge of Mercy
Accompanying someone in their journey does not require us to endorse their choices nor abandon our own values. As difficult as we find it, it can provide the bridge they need to return to the truth and wisdom to which we hold.
Only God is all-loving and all-just, while for us there will always be a tension between the two. By being a bridge of mercy we extend hope to others, and pray that God will do the rest to bring them peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Francine Pirola is the founder of Cathfamily and the mother of five children. She resides in Sydney, Australia, and with husband, Byron is co-director of the Marriage Resource Centre.