Why we should explain awkward topics to our kids

From the cheating national cricket team to same sex marriage, you don't need to avoid difficult conversations with your young ones.


As the hot takes came thick and fast in the wake of the Australian cricket cheating imbroglio, one came sailing in out of left field and smacked my gob good and proper. “How,” certain self-styled sporting ethicists were asking, “can I explain this to my children?”

Apparently across the country there were young cricket fans whose love of the national team was so intense, and their belief in the innocence of humanity so complete, that there was just no way to impart the dreadful news to them.

This was surprising to me, as I had not found it particularly difficult to explain to my own kids. “The Australian team cheated, guys,” I said. “That’s bad,” they said. “Yep”.

Maybe my kids are anomalies, but I found it weird to imagine that even young children lack the ability to understand the concept of people doing the wrong thing. They encounter it almost daily in their parents’ anguished shouts.

As for cheating, every child who has ever played a game knows what cheating is, why it’s wrong, and why it’s really tempting if you think you can get away with it.

I was surprised, but I probably shouldn’t have been. “Think of the children” is so common a refrain it’s a punchline, and the hand-wringing parent making the rhetorical plea “How do I explain this?” is a perennial theme in just about any scandal or moral quandary in the spotlight.

When a violent crime comes on the news, how do I explain this to the kids? When you drive past a sexy billboard, how do I explain this to the kids?

Or gun violence, pornography, sexism, racism, homophobia, climate change, asylum seekers, parliamentary question time. How do I explain these to the kids?

Sometimes parenthood can seem like nothing but an endless minefield of incredibly complex adults-only issues that must be banished from the public sphere because our children could never understand.

You can look at your toddler and think everything is flying over their head, but looking ahead (to ages three and beyond), you foresee a lifetime of explanations that you’ll be called on to provide. Are you prepared to provide them?

When you contemplate the complications of parenthood for the years to come, it’s only natural that you look for a way out, a way to evade the trickier conundrums.

The first thing to say to anyone genuinely concerned about this aspect of parenthood is … relax. Children frequently surprise with their knowledge and ability to comprehend adult concepts.

Moreover, explaining things is not as complex as it can first seem.

Think of the great debate of last year, same-sex marriage. Let’s say your former toddler/now young child had taken an interest in the news, and wants you to explain same-sex marriage to them.

Some might have you believe that this will require you to engage a five-year-old in an in-depth discussion on the nature and origins of human sexuality.

Honestly, it’s not necessary. What you need to say is something along the lines of, “Sometimes men want to marry men, and women want to marry women, and at the moment they’re not allowed to, so they’re asking the government to change the law”.

Pretty simple. You might get follow-up questions, but you’re a grown-up, they’re a child, I’m sure you can handle them.

Kids are not hothouse flowers, they will not wilt when exposed to cold reality. And you get to decide just how much of that reality you tell them.

If they ask you why people are debating gun control, you don’t have to delve into the psychology of a school shooter. Just explain that some people get angry and want to hurt other people, and people are disagreeing about whether making it hard to get guns will stop them.

Most of all, trust your children, and you might find that talking to them about these things is quite enjoyable. The feeling that you’re expanding a young mind is a nice one.

It’s not the kids, it’s us

We aren’t living in fear of explaining difficult subjects to our children, we’re living in fear of exploring our own feelings about them. Perhaps more than anything, we’re afraid of betraying our own anxiety.

If we can delegate our moral panic to our children, we hope we’ll be seen not as hysterical killjoys, but as simply concerned parents. After all, child welfare trumps all, right?

If we just convince everyone that our concern is only for the rugrats, we can continue play-acting tolerance and sangfroid. As long as we centre our anxiety on the children, it’s not us being anxious.

Most people are self-aware enough to know that to say, “I saw a lady in her underwear on a sign and I was SHOCKED” or even “I am going out of my mind over the men who rubbed sandpaper on a ball”, will make them look a bit silly.

By contrast, “How do I explain this to my kids?” is designed to make them look reasonable. But the fact is, it’s a smokescreen.

In a way, we play the concerned parent card because we’re afraid to properly grow up ourselves. When morally contentious questions crop up in our lives, we frequently sidestep them.

But when we have kids, responsibility kicks in. We feel we should possess more moral certainty, about everything.

It’s scary to worry you might be on the wrong side of an issue, when you have a child and think you’re responsible for instilling values in them.

Rather than face the daunting task of honestly examining our own beliefs, why not just shrug them off by claiming that the REAL issue is our kids’ inability to understand adult ideas?

We must stop using our children as cover for our moral panics. If we’re offended, admit that. If we’re outraged, be upfront about it.

Stop painting the offspring as ignoramuses in a perfect state of innocence, and confess our own judgmental, disproportionate, prudish views.

Maybe think of the children a little bit less. And if you need to talk to your kids, don’t complain that it’s too hard: just do it. You’ll amaze yourself.

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