“Conversations with your Kids” is a series in partnership with Responsibility.org, an organization which helps parents promote good decision making, particularly around the issues of peer pressure and underage drinking. Each post will explore the opportunity for honest conversation within a different family, along with expert tips to help us all establish open lines of communication with our children.
Heather lives with her husband Evan and their three children in a rural town in Florida. All three of their kids came to them through foster care and have since been adopted. Heather talked to me about her relationship with her oldest son Warren, a five-year-old boy who is very fond of asking lots and lots of questions.
Heather and Warren have three main places where they tend to talk about more serious stuff— in the car, when they’re “snuggling up for bed”, or during a “just us date”. Heather says she tries to do something special with each of her kids at least once a month, so that each has the same opportunity for her undivided attention.
Is it easy to talk to Warren or do you need to pull stuff out of him?
Warren says “Mama, can I ask you something?” about five hundred times a day. I try hard to always sound super excited to hear his thoughts— even if it’s the 90th time he’s told me “Sheep Creep from Skylanders is a bad guy”— so that when the BIG issues come up, he’ll feel just as comfortable talking to me about those too.
Have you approached any of the “BIG issues” with Warren?
I’ve tried to wait for them to come up organically, partially because I’m scared of giving too much info too soon. I’ve never really sure what the right middle ground is between helping my son become informed and scaring him with too many details.
Because we are foster and adoptive parents, Warren has seen eleven other children come through our home. Some have stayed only briefly (the shortest being 11 hours), but two of them ended up becoming our forever children as well (Liam and Elie). Warren remembers some of the kids who’ve been in our home, so there were times when the seemingly revolving door caused him to have some fear about the permanence of family. I think he was afraid he might have to leave at some point too. We explained that some children came to our home because they needed a safe place to stay until their own families were able to provide one for them, but that ended up bringing up a whole other line of questions about his own biological family. Talk about a super tough conversation!
Did you have answers for him?
You know, I consider myself to be a relatively smart person with a nice, well rounded, liberal arts education. But this five year old asks me questions on occasion that make me think I’ve got no business rearing children! I’ve had to stop and think around the corners of why Warren is asking something so I don’t answer the wrong part of the question. He often causes me to rethink my own questions about life and our place in the universe. Some of the topics he’s brought up, I’ve actually had to go out in search of answers— like how to explain death to a child or how to explain why our family looks different than other families. Having a kid who is extremely aware of his surroundings has definitely challenged me to be honest and creative all at the same time.
Has being part of a foster family influenced Warren’s view of the world?
Warren knows he is adopted and can remember his adoption day (he was almost two). He was also old enough to understand what was going on when we adopted Liam and then Elie. Most of our friends have children who are adopted or are still in foster status awaiting the finalization of their adoptions, so we’ve talked about all the different ways a family can be created. Although, since he’s never been around anyone who has been pregnant, he truly thinks babies come because the placement unit makes a phone call or a case manager brings a new kiddo to the house.
We’ve also talked about race quite a bit because we’ve had kids of all colors, shapes and sizes come through our home. We live in a veeeery rural area, and I’m as lily white as they come, so we’ve gotten a few raised eyebrows when I’ve gone shopping with several kids in tow who didn’t necessarily look like me. Also, many of our friends are same sex couples, so we’ve had conversations about why Cam, Neigal and Ava have two daddies when he only has one and we’ve talked about Mr. Danny and Mr. Cas getting married and how that only recently has been able to happen. The funny thing about these two topics is they weren’t a big deal to him at all.
Are there any issues that you have had trouble explaining?
I was at a store once with Warren and a beautiful black baby girl we had placed with us for a few days. A lady in the checkout line asked if both kids were mine. When I said yes, she made a nasty remark that Warren heard, so we spent the next two weeks explaining what the remark meant and why someone would have said that in the first place.
Questions about special needs have come up recently as well. My son Liam has some pretty significant delays that are likely due to his prenatal drug and alcohol exposure. Because Warren is getting older, he’s starting to be aware of the differences between himself and his brother. He’ll ask why Liam wears braces or walks or talks differently than other children. This is a brand new area for me, so I’m probably not handling this quite as well as I’d like!
What subjects are you most nervous to talke to warren about in the future?
Mental illness, sex, drugs, alcohol, abuse, violence, bigotry, hatred, religion— you know, pretty much ALL the biggies. Many of these things have already directly affected my kids’ lives, since they all came to me because their biological parents had serious, unresolved issues in areas such as mental health, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, etc. These were the things that caused their families of origin to be dissolved. How do I talk to my kids about this and convey that these issues are bad while still being able to honor and respect their parents?
Has Warren asked any questions about alcohol?
I made French Onion soup from scratch for the first time last night and my recipe called for a cup of red wine. Well… the mini bottle was a little more than a cup, so instead of wasting it, I drank the last few ounces. Warren was helping me cook and he was a little ticked off that I didn’t let him have the grape juice. I panicked. I didn’t have a response queued up for this question even though I do drink wine on occasion! I had to explain to him that it wasn’t grape juice for kids because it had something in it that would make him sick.
I will say that after having as many kids as we’ve had, I have had to learn to let some things go, and just trust the kids are going to be okay in the long run. One of the family therapists we’ve seen over the years talked to us at length about how to let your kids grow up to be able to make good choices. I’ve really tried to employ some of those strategies in explaining our family rules to my kids and then trying to live by those rules too. I’m hoping that by being as open with my kids as I can and by allowing them to explore their worlds confidently as kids, they’ll grow up confident enough to make healthy choices.
What do you hope your relationship with warren looks like in the future?
I want to have the kind of relationship with my kids where they know I’m the parent, but also see me as their best friend in life. I want them to be able to talk to me about the tough stuff, but even more I want them to WANT to talk to me about that kind of stuff. I hope that even when they’re adults, they’ll feel like it’s okay to come to mama to help sort stuff out when they need it.
Heather seems like the kind of mom who knows exactly what she is doing (teach me, Heather, teach me!), but to help the rest of us, I had Responsibility.org give tips on how to respond when you’ve got a super curious kid and you aren’t always sure you know the right answers to his questions.
4 Things to do when you don’t know how to answer your kid’s question
1) Whatever you do, DON’T walk away
Your kid asked a really awkward, surprising, gross or terrifying question and you just finished picking your jaw up from the floor. Now what? The time stall is key and the only thing we truly advise NOT doing, is walking away. If your child sees you try to avoid a question, it will only increase their curiosity and feed the thoughts racing through their already questioning minds. Stay calm and stay put.
2) ASK The 5 W’s
If you immediately don’t know what to say, a good place to start is with the “5 W’s”: Who were you talking with that about? What made you think of that? Where did this come up? When did this come up (or how long has this been on your mind)? Why do you think this is important to talk about? Most likely, their answers to these questions, if asked at a slow, calm pace, will lead you to the deeper concern of where to take the conversation next.
3) HOw you answer is as important as what you answer
There’s no right way to answer any one question, but each kid’s brain works differently and can benefit from different teaching styles. If your kid is more creative, try to explain things through a story, or something they can visually conceptualize. If you think your child is more type-A, tell him exactly how it impacts him and if possible, relate it back to a past experience. Sometimes kids need to know the emotional consequences to understand the larger issue. Relating back to their feelings can go a long way.
4) You can always revisit a question later If you think of a better answer
There’s pressure as parents to think you have to know it all, but sometimes it takes time to figure out the best way to navigate a situation. Use the tactics above to get deeper into their question and figure out the best advice to give in the moment (if they ask for it, of course). But if you think of a better way to explain it later, you can always revisit the question. Remember— you don’t have only one shot at giving good parenting advice.
April is Alcohol Responsibility Month. To learn more about Responsibility.org and their #TalkEarly campaign which advocates open and early conversation around alcohol, click here.
This post was sponsored by Responsibility.org, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Photos by Raquel Langworthy.