At times, I struggle with how I want to present the world to my children. I don’t want to squash their natural tendency to view the universe as magical, but I don’t want to sugarcoat the less lovely reality to the point of deception.
Adults have made certain topics taboo. If it makes us uncomfortable, we assume our kids will have trouble too. In my experience, these topics typically involve life cycle events like death, birth, and loss of life (like a miscarriage). In these instances, I take a step back and think, well, this is all biology, and I have a degree in biology. I cannot hide what happens in nature, or more specifically, what my kids see birds doing on our back deck in the springtime. So I cannot hide the truth from my kids.
I treat my kids with respect, valuing their intelligence and trying not to underestimate their ability to understand complex topics. If they don’t understand something, they’ll ask more questions and I’ll answer them as simply as possible. They force me to break things down into something they can grasp.
For example, my 4-year-old daughter, who was in the bathroom with me, asked what I was doing, as I changed my tampon. I thought about how to tell the truth without making it “a thing.”
Question: What are you doing?
Answer: When I don’t have a baby in my womb, which is called a uterus, blood spills out of my vagina every month. It happens to grown-up women, so you don’t have to worry about it for a long time. I put tampons in my vagina to keep the blood from spilling out on to my underwear.
She asked a few follow-up questions, but we moved on with our day and (bonus) now I have three little helpers who love to bring me tampons when I need them!
Another time, she was looking at the last pregnancy photo we took on our way to the hospital before she was born.
Question: How did I get out of you?
Answer: I pushed you out of a hole, my vagina. Sometimes doctors help mamas who need the baby cut out of their womb, but babies are usually pushed out of vaginas.
Question: Did it hurt?
Answer: Yes, but I was so happy to see you, I didn’t care and the pain went away quickly. You just wanted breast milk!
4-year-old: I was so happy to see you too.
My heart melted. There are instances where I need to correct myself like the time I realized we have been wrongly identifying vaginas.
Mama: Girls, girls, gather around. I have something to tell you. I got it wrong. Your vagina is the hole on the inside and your vulva is on the outside.
4 year old: My vulva is the outside part?
4 year old: My body is a vulva!
OK, nothing is perfect.
The bonus of being anatomically correct and honest is protection against sexual predators. Research has found predators do not target kids who know the correct names of their body parts, so I have never given their vagina or vulva cute names like muffin or cookie.
When my best friend had a miscarriage, I told my daughter the baby in her Auntie’s womb was not strong enough to keep growing. I was prepared to explain what physically happened to the baby, but she only showed concern and emotion for the well-being of her Auntie and sadness over the lost baby.
The truth always comes out, so I might as well start there. Lying means I am inadvertently sending the message they can’t handle the truth. Moreover, I want my girls to feel comfortable talking about their reproductive body parts, do so with confidence knowing their voices and questions will be heard. I don’t want to shut down their natural curiosity.
I have learned I can tell my kids the truth, the real truth, and their heads do not pop off, nothing explodes, and the “parent police” do not barge in to take me away. With honesty, my kids are generally nonplussed, and we move on to the next subject.
The same applies to even bigger topics. Death, I explained with honesty about what physically happens. I say: your body never moves again and some people are put into the ground in a box. Then I focus on the spirituality of the soul and how love lives on.
My general modus operandi as a parent is transparency and authenticity. I want my girls to know they can trust me for the truth, good or bad. If I build trust now, when the really difficult conversations come up in their teenager years, I hope they will feel comfortable talking to me. I would rather they learn the “uncomfortable” truths from me now. Moreover, if they don’t hear this from me, who should it be?