By Karen and Derek Boylen
Karen recently gave birth to our fifth child Zechariah. A few weeks before he was born our two eldest children (Elijah 6 and Isaiah 4 1⁄2) asked one of those questions parents dread. “Mummy, how does the baby get out?”
Talking to children about the beginnings of life and where babies come from is an awkward job, guaranteed to create self doubt for any parent. How much do they need to know? How much is too much? How do I be truthful to my child while at the same time protecting their innocence? It’s not a simple process and every parent approaches it a different way.
As Catholic parents it is vital that we engage with our children on these topics. If we don’t educate, guide and provide wisdom, society and peer influence most certainly will. As Catholics we share very particular views on the significance of life before birth, reserving sex for a committed married relationship, the dignity of each person regardless of culture, gender, ability or age, etc.
Our society and media don’t miss a beat. They take every available opportunity to bombard us with messages on all these issues. The result of these efforts is the culture we live in. As parents we could learn something.
There are two approaches to questions like “How does the baby get out? How come grandma is not coming back? Where do babies come from? Why do I have to help other people?” One is to dread them and find a way to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible or palm it off to your spouse, “Ask your mother”. The other is to see it as a special opportunity; a teachable moment.
When children ask these questions they are reaching out to us. Amid all the messages they are receiving they are seeking us out for advice, for guidance. It’s a special opportunity. Often they are feeling as nervous as us.
Not only should we see it as a special opportunity to impart our values and beliefs but to let our children know that the door is always open. Not only do we want to have this particular conversation but we want to invite more of them.
The scary thing most parents are fearful of is what to actually say or saying the wrong thing. We usually start with a “well…” followed by a deep breath to buy us time. It helps to have had a conversation with your spouse or other significant adults in your child’s life about how much you want them to know.
Have a think about some of the issues your child is most likely to ask at each age and work out what you want to say beforehand so you are prepared. Some of the most common, depending on the age of your child, will include where babies come from, death and dying, life before birth, changes that happen at puberty, why we have to go to church, war, alcohol and drugs.
When thinking about these topics and how you might discuss them with your children try to identify the key messages you want to impart, not the actual words you are going to say. What are the key values and beliefs?
Our five children are very young. Some of the key understandings we want our children to have at this stage is that every person is special and every person is a gift from God; that their bodies are special and good; that every person’s body is different and that they are all special; that it is always safe to talk to mummy and daddy.
Be prepared for the unexpected. Children often ask these questions when we least expect them; at parties, when relatives are around or when visiting friends. It is tempting to brush them off. Unfortunately, they don’t usually think to ask later or when we try to approach the subject later they have lost interest. Putting children off in these situations sends a subtle message to them that the subject is embarrassing or that we don’t like to talk about it.
The result is that they are less likely to come to us next time. Of course in a public setting we also need to exercise discretion particularly if there are other children present.
Sometimes an enthusiastic “Wow, that’s a really good question! Now’s not a good time but I’d love to talk to you about that later” can do the trick. Make sure you take the initiative to follow up later though.
Making the most of teachable moments and having these conversations are vital. So many other people are talking to your children; they need to hear your voice. Conversations lead to clearer thinking, it helps them to reflect.
Don’t forget to point out situations that give messages counter to yours. Be creative, advertisements on television, billboards and the radio all create opportunities for teachable moments.
A last word, make sure you put your values into action. Your deeds will always have a much bigger influence than what you say. Impart your values and talk to your children but most of all let them see that you live by them too.
‘How does the baby get out?’
07 May 2008
By Karen and Derek Boylen