How to Have Awkward Conversations With Your Kids
One Saturday morning, while we were driving home from a karate lesson, my then-nine-year-old son asked me: “Mom, what’s the ‘s-word?’” My husband and I glanced at each other; we had gotten into the habit early on of not cursing in front of him (and by “early on,” I mean it took us the entirety of his first year of life to fully stop). I am not one for actively teaching my son to swear—hence training myself to stop in the first place. But I’m also a firm believer that when your child asks you an earnest question, you do the best you can to give them an honest, albeit age-appropriate, answer. But damn, can it be awkward.
There is a seemingly endless list of awkward conversations we will have with our children as they grow up, especially as it relates to certain body parts, bodily functions, procreation and sex. But saying, “Well, honey, the s-word is ‘shit,’ which is another word for ‘poop,’” is just not a sentence one imagines one saying when one dreams of having children. However, this—or some equally awkward version of it—is forever lurking around the corner. Here’s how you can prepare for it and get yourself more comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Ideally, the time to think about how you’ll talk to your kids about things like how babies are made is before it comes up. Try to anticipate all the “big talks” you’ll have with them as they grow up (we have advice for addressing many of them here), and arm yourself with some tips for age-appropriate language and explanations. You may still fumble your way through some topics a bit the first time, but if you’ve got some semblance of an answer ready, it will relieve a bit of the pressure.
Luckily for me, although I did not anticipate actively teaching my sweet child a slew of curse words, I had already thought through what my stance on him cursing would be. My husband and I think it unrealistic to expect a child to never swear, especially around his friends as he gets older. However, cursing in front of his grandmother or his two-year-old cousin is not a thing I’m going to be okay with. So, I told him, “I’ll tell you what that word is. But first, we have to talk about when it’s okay—and when it’s not okay—to use it, because it can be offensive to some people and it can get you into trouble in certain situations.”
We laid out a pretty simple rule: Don’t curse around kids younger than you, and don’t curse around adults until you are an adult. In other words, you don’t want to be the one to teach a little kid a bad word, and your teacher won’t be impressed if she hears it, either. He thought that sounded fair, so we were able to continue with me naming and defining “shit,” as well as many of the other words you are thinking about right now.
Location is key
Awkward conversations are much less awkward—for you and for them—if you’re not forced to make eye contact. There are certainly times when serious conversations require eye contact. But in many cases, the lack of eye contact can make it easier for them to ask more open and honest questions.
My favorite place to have talks like this is the car. My eyes have to stay on the road; he can stare out the window. We can take our time responding to each other. It feels less threatening somehow. A walk around the neighborhood is good, too, because you’re close together but facing forward. I also know one mom who likes to invite her teenage son into the kitchen to “keep her company” while she’s prepping dinner. She chops vegetables while he pours his heart out. There is safety in the fact that her attention is divided, if only ever-so-slightly.
The cursing conversation, as I mentioned, happened in the car, and I suspect that’s because my son has gotten used to it being a more comfortable spot to ask these kinds of questions.
Admit that you feel awkward, too
You can be prepared with answers and you can pick a good location for “big talks,” but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel any awkwardness—you are only human and you may not be used to putting words to some of these topics. If you feel awkward, though, there’s a good chance your kids will pick up on it. And they may interpret your hesitancy or discomfort as a result of their question and, therefore, that they did something wrong by asking it. Kids are very good at internalizing our emotions and blaming themselves for things we’d never imagine they’d blame themselves for.
So if you feel awkward, admit it. “It might sound like I’m kind of fumbling for an answer here,” you might say. “That’s just because I’m not used to talking about XYZ very much, and I’m trying to find the right words. But it’s a good question, and I’m so glad you asked it.” It’s actually sort of a bonus: Your awkwardness gives you an extra opportunity to put words to your feelings, which is always a good thing to model.
End it with this
I have a tendency to get rambly when I’m having an awkward conversation with my son. I can often see one simple question as an opportunity to address a whole bunch of stuff all at once, going off on my own tangents and, without intending to, dancing around his simpler question. But I don’t want him to think I’m purposely evading his question, so I always end one of these conversations with, “Did I answer your question?”
Sometimes he says I have, and sometimes he says, “Well, I still don’t understand…” and I’ll realize I’ve gone too far in the wrong direction or missed a crucial detail and can course-correct without leaving him more confused than when we started.
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