You know kids say the darndest things, and well, sometimes they ask the darndest things, sending red-faced parents running. Here’s how to answer some of those did-they-really-just-ask-that questions.

Dr. Dan Gottlieb vividly recalls the day his 5- and 6-year-old daughters asked him what “bopping the bologna” meant. The girls had heard that line while watching the movie “Vacation” with Chevy Chase a couple days earlier.

Gottlieb

Dan Gottlieb, PhD

“My wife and I previewed the movie, and that line made her uncomfortable, but I said they weren’t going to notice it,” recalls Gottlieb, a family psychologist and longtime host of WHYY-FM’s “Voices in the Family.”

Gottlieb answered his daughters’ question with a straightforward, honest response they could understand. “My daughter used to like to play with herself in the bathtub – she liked the way it felt,” he says. “So I said, ‘It’s like touching yourself in the bathtub. Bopping the bologna is what boys do.’ Five minutes later one of the girls says, ‘Daddy, did you ever bop the bologna?’ Now I’m going from pink to crimson. My motto is, if they ask, you tell. So I said, ‘Yeah, honey. I bopped the bologna.’”

Most parents want to be honest with their children, but when kids ask age-inappropriate questions or seek out personal information, it’s understandable to not know what to say. We asked the experts for help in handling our kids’ sensitive questions.

What were Mommy and Daddy doing in the bedroom?

First and foremost, says Gottlieb, never give children information they are not asking for. You have to listen carefully and make sure you understand what they want to know.

“You can give them the most benign answer,” he says. “If the child is young, you can say, ‘Mommy and Daddy were loving each other. Sometimes we get real happy when we’re together, and we make noise.’ Then ask them if there was something else they wanted to know. For an older child, 12 or 13, give them permission to ask what they want to know. That will open a dialogue, and that’s what you want.”

Why do boys have a penis and girls don’t?

It’s important for parents to know that children ask these questions because they are growing up and starting to notice changes in their bodies, says Rama Rao Gogineni, MD, head of child psychiatry for Cooper University Health Care.

Rama Rao Gogineni, MD

Rama Rao Gogineni, MD

“They want to feel safe and secure, and protected,” he says. “Parents should not get angry or be embarrassed. When a child is somewhere around 2½ to 4, their brains and bodies start to change. The body starts producing pheromones, and the nervous system in the pelvic area starts to mature. The brain is growing, the body is changing and the hormones start kicking in.”

This is when girls start playing with baby dolls and pretend to be mommies. They are also starting to notice gender differences.

“The parents can say, ‘There are differences between boys and girls, and this is one of them,’” says Gogineni. “It’s OK to use the words penis and vagina, but the words are not important. Using whatever words you decide are acceptable to describe the penis and vagina, you could say that boys have a penis but girls have the pouch that carries babies. It’s about acknowledging gender differences.”

What’s the f-word?

Whether your child heard an adult shout out the f-word during an argument, or he came home from school confused because a peer directed it at him, it’s never easy to explain what the word means.

“First, the parent would want to know why the child is asking the question,” says Rutgers psychology professor Maurice Elias, PhD.

Maurice Elias, PhD

Maurice Elias, PhD

If your child heard you utter the word, Elias adds, you need to accept responsibility. “You might say, ‘It’s a word that sometimes grown-ups use when they’re very angry but it’s not a nice word to use, and Mommy and Daddy shouldn’t use it.”

Then explain that you should have expressed how you felt without using profanity. “The parent can say, ‘What I should have said was, I’m really annoyed, or I’m so disappointed, or I can’t believe that happened.’”

If the child heard the word outside the home, find out where he heard it and in what context. “It’s a similar answer but you should say, ‘People sometimes use that word when they’re very angry, but it’s not a nice word.’”

Did you ever do drugs?

Gottlieb believes that when the children are old enough – 13 or 14 years old – honesty is the best policy.

“When my kids asked me, I said, ‘Yes, I smoked pot,’” he says. “‘But in my youth pot was unheard of until I was 20 years old. Then all of a sudden everybody was smoking. So my brain was much more developed then. It scares me to have young brains doing drugs.’

“They asked me what it was like, and I said, ‘Sometimes it feels wonderful, and you feel relaxed and mellow. In my case, sometimes I got paranoid, and it was a nightmare.’”

Gottlieb encourages parents to tell the whole truth and keep the lines of communication open. When his own daughter tried drugs, she called him ahead of time to discuss her choice with him.

“She trusted that I would be fair, I would listen, I wouldn’t freak out, and I was understanding of both the drug and my daughter,” he says. “We want our children to feel safe to talk to us. If we take the position of naysayers, or talk about the horrors and why they shouldn’t do it, they aren’t going to feel safe to come to us. It’s a time for dialogue, not for punishment.”

Who do you love best?

“There are two parts to this question,” says Cooper’s Gogineni. “One is, ‘Do you really love me?’ The second part is, ‘Do you love my siblings more than me?’ It’s important to convey that you don’t love anybody more or less.”

You should acknowledge that your relationship with each sibling may look different, because each child has his own personality. That means the way parents relate to each child is individualized. For example, one child may be more physically demonstrative while another is more shy.

“It’s possible that the shy child might feel he’s loved less because the other is getting more hugs,” says Gogineni. “But that has nothing to do with love. You need to say, ‘I have enough love for all of you. If you feel that I’m loving someone more than you, that’s not true.’”

Why are we at war?

“When they ask that question, basically they want to know, more than anything else, that they’re safe,” says Rutgers’ Elias. “The most important thing to say is, ‘The war is not here, it’s far away.’ Then, depending on the child’s age, you may have to explain what war is.”

That can be a simple explanation that sometimes countries disagree about the right way to do things and when they fight with each other, it’s called a war, Elias says. “When people believe in something they try really hard to make it happen. If there’s no way to do it without fighting, sometimes you have to fight.”

The professor suggests using the example of the American Revolution to talk about how our country came about. “Americans were not allowed to have freedom, and even though we tried peacefully, we ultimately had to fight for it,” he says.

How old were you when you first had sex?

A big fan of full disclosure, WHYY’s Gottlieb says if they are old enough to ask that question, it is fair to answer it.

“You can talk about what was wonderful about it and what was scary,” he says. “If you felt pressure by your girlfriend or boyfriend, and what that was like for you. Be open with them, knowing that they want to know what this world that they are going through is like. It’s not Q and A. You don’t want to give them a number of how many times you had sex, whether it’s true or not. They want to know so much more than that number.”

Gottlieb says this is the opportunity to ask the child if she has any questions or concerns about herself. It’s not about you, but about the child.

January 2014
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