“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

How do you talk to kids about difficult topics? Are there topics that should be off limits? Is there an age threshold for some topics? All of these questions have come up for me recently. For most of them, because this is real life we’re talking about, the answer starts with “It depends on…” which is probably not why you’re reading a blog post.

One of them is fairly simple to address. If we are refusing to speak to our children about a particular subject, particularly if it is something they may have learned about from some other source (and in the 21st Century, there are many, many other sources), we need to keep in mind what our silence is telling them. According to Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, it could be:

1) My parents don’t know about this and can’t shed light on any questions I have;

2) My parents didn’t talk to me about this because they don’t want to talk about it (either they’re uncomfortable talking about it, it’s not something that should be asked about, or they don’t think I should know anything about it); or

3) It’s something embarrassing or shameful and they might think there’s something wrong with me if I ask questions about it or talk about it.

It’s good, then, to be prepared for questions when they come up. In my experience, they are usually a surprise. I still remember my mom’s response when I asked her, apropos of nothing, what a tampon was for. I’m guessing that if I were a girl she would have had at least something prepared. Snuck up on her!

It seems, then that there are two kinds of difficult topics: those that we can anticipate and those that we cannot. Among the first are things like major news events—disasters, scandals, shootings, crimes—that kids will get wind of even if we don’t expose them to the media. Also major life events: puberty, birth, death, marriage, divorce, new family members. If we can see these things coming we can reasonably expect kids to be curious about them. But as evidenced by my surprise attack on my mom, we may not always get the chance to rehearse a response.

So, whether or not we saw them coming, what’s the best way to proceed? This article gives us a good place to start:

“Find out what your child knows already. If your child asks you a difficult question (about sex, death, politics, etc.), you might simply ask, ‘What have you heard?’ This allows your child to tell you what she understands — or misunderstands — and perhaps what concerns are prompting her question.” Also, “Keep your answers simple.” Keep in mind the age and maturity level of the person doing the asking.

To these, I would like to add a couple of riders:

Don’t bring it up if they don’t, and don’t continue talking about it if they don’t appear to be interested, or to be following you. If we encourage kids to ask us about anything they want to know about, and respond accordingly, they will come to us.

Also, and this is also from bitter experience, prepare a response if you can but don’t make it a lecture. Kids can smell a moral a mile away.

Not having the answer is okay. Offer to find out more, or if appropriate, involve them in the project. Honesty has a scent as well, but it’s much sweeter.