How Do You Talk to Your Child About Difficult Subjects?

by Shannon Hembree on October 11, 2012

How do you talk to your child about difficult subjects? What do you say when someone passes you in a wheelchair, and your child demands to know (in a very loud voice) why he or she can’t have a cool ride like that? And how about skin color? If it hasn’t come up because your children are too young, be prepared, because it will. People come in every shape, size, and color. Some have two arms and two legs, and some don’t. Some can see, and some can’t. How do you teach your children about people being different?

The whole, “people are different” thing again caught me off guard while watching an episode of Parenthood. If you don’t watch it, there is a biracial couple with a young son. The son overhears someone say the N word when recording a song. The parents must then navigate the tricky waters of telling their son what the word means and where it came from, which leads to a discussion of how white people used to own black people in America. Side note, you may think from previews that Parenthood is a comedy, but it will make you cry…every time.

So I watched this episode, which stuck in the back of my mind, and then it got linked up in my brain with the celebration of Columbus Day. This week, my daughter’s class is learning about Christopher Columbus in honor of Columbus Day. When I was a child, it was a pretty straightforward lesson. Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America (the Vikings may have a thing or two to say about that). I have no idea what they teach in schools these days, but when I talked through the story of Christopher Columbus with my daughter, I wanted to go beyond the whole “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” thing. We talked a bit about how there were people here when he “discovered” this land. We didn’t hit really tough topics (she’s six after all) other than to discuss how Columbus’ discovery wasn’t a good thing for all involved. We talked about how we would feel if someone came into the house we live in and said that they found it so they own it, and we had to leave.

The last two weeks have reinforced my belief that history – and life for that matter – is a messy and complicated business where the gray often outshines the black or white or the wrong or right of the matter. And that’s just history and facts. There is also the whole matter of the living and breathing people who are different from us and our kids. My daughter asked me recently why a little girl she saw didn’t have any hair. It nearly brought me to my knees. How do you explain childhood cancer to another child – or to anyone for that matter? It was all I could do not to break down trying to explain to her that God makes everyone different – how everyone’s bodies have different strengths and weaknesses. She understood that because her brother has some health issues. She gets it when things are made relevant to her through personal examples like that, and so that is the path we take. Everyone is different and everyone is special, because that is how God made them. She may not understand the whys and the hows, but she accepts these things for what they are and doesn’t attach a value to it.

From what I have seen, this is how most kids approach the massive gray areas in the world. They notice differences, but they don’t attach a value to them unless they are taught to do so. As parents, we are often the first place young kids go for answers about why people are different, and we need to tread lightly when giving these answers. Our judgments can become our children’s judgments, and our biases can become their biases. This, of course, makes it seem like just another area where we are going to doom our kids to endless years of therapy. But does it have to be so? If it is true that our biases can become our children’s biases and our judgments theirs as well, couldn’t it also be true that our compassion can become their compassion and our understanding their understanding?

Life is full of gray areas and “teachable” moments for our kids (and for us for that matter). I don’t know what the right answer is when the discussion gets messy and complicated. Like every other parent out there, I am flying blind and making it up as I go along. What I do know is that when my daughter asks why someone is different, my answer will be this: It is not just that person who is different. We are all different in our own way. We all face different challenges. We all have different strengths. Some of these challenges and strengths we can see, and some we can’t. But underneath all of our differences is the one unchangeable fact that we are all just people – different, yes, but no better or worse than anyone else out there.

Okay, I probably wouldn’t say it to my six year old like that…but as she gets older, I will certainly try. And what about you – how do you tackle tough subjects with your kids?

Shannon Hembree is a SAHM for a first grader and twin toddlers. She makes up parenting as she goes along and hopes for the best…kind of like when she cooks, although she hopes her parenting efforts are a lot more successful than her cooking efforts. You can follow her on Twitter @Shannon1Hembree.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan October 11, 2012 at 10:48 am

Well said Shannon! My son once told me he wanted to have brown skin like his preschool teacher and friend. That led to a discussion of God making people in a rainbow of colors and thinking about how boring it would be if everyone looked the same. That was an easy discussion, but of course it gets harder when he sees someone in a wheelchair and thinks that it would be fun to have one. Then it gets tricky. The thin line between being grateful for our health yet making sure he doesn’t pity or judge anyone who is different. Now that school has started and he’s off on his own for several hours each day, I hope and pray that I have taught him to treat everyone with love and respect and step up when someone else isn’t doing the same.


Shannon October 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Wow, Megan — what a wonderful comment! It is such a tricky area in parenting. I don’t want to be one of those parents who avoids topics because they are tricky though. Good luck to us as our kids get older!


When I Blink October 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Oh, I love that show. It gets me every time. One day, I’m going to get through an episode without tearing up and having to fake an injury to explain my crying.

The beauty of discussing this kind of stuff with young children is that their default setting is acceptance. The earlier we’re able to talk about it with them, the better chance we have at heading off whatever might change that default setting.


Shannon October 11, 2012 at 8:34 pm

I love the “their default setting is acceptance” part. So true. Thanks!


Alexandra October 15, 2012 at 3:31 am

Loved this dialogue here. Really good rules for how to approach and model subjects to our children.

Featured in on my Best of the Internet post today, b/c it’s something I think parents need to give thought to, and not just kneejerk respond to.


Shannon October 15, 2012 at 6:59 am

Wow — thanks! Have a great day!


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