Anyone who spends much time with children knows that the question “Why?” comes up constantly– whether the question is why rabbits can’t fly, or why can’t I stand on the table in the middle of dinner or why can’t I show someone my penis or vagina if I feel like it or why do I have to ask my grownups first before I can talk to strangers?
Some “Why?” questions are easy to answer. Rabbits can’t fly because they don’t have wings. You can’t stand on the table because we don’t want you to step in our food, and you might fall off.
As adults, we sometimes have the job of not answering every question in the way it was asked. Getting into details about some kinds of “Why?” questions can lead to putting pictures into children’s minds that don’t need to be there.
With younger children, questions about safety rules on touching or strangers are often best answered just by saying, “Because that’s our safety rule.” Kids know that adults and families have rules. For example, the adult gets to say when kids get to have cookies and when they don’t or that kids have to go to bed at 8 p.m. rather than 9 p.m. The reason that adults get to decide what the rules are is because adults have the job of taking care of children and of keeping them safe.
Kids ask “Why?” questions about sexual play, nudity, and strangers in the same way that they question other rules. As adults, we know that the reason for the safety rules about the private parts of the body is because there is the potential for someone to get hurt physically and emotionally. As adults, we know that there are people with problems who might bother us or who might harm a child without our protection. And we don’t need to inflict this information on our children sooner than necessary.
Answers like “doing this is bad or dangerous” are likely to be confusing, upsetting, and lead to more questions. Children know that showing or touching their private areas is not inherently painful and might be interesting or pleasurable. We don’t want to teach them to feel ashamed of any part of their body. And, most of the time, interactions with people children don’t know are likely to be very positive. We don’t want to teach them fear of strangers or disrespect towards people whose behavior or appearance is different.
A clearer answer is, “Because doing things this way is following our safety rules.” Younger children do not need to know all the reasons why we have rules, but they do need to know that the rules are there to help keep them safe.
Suppose a child asks why touching or looking at pictures or videos about private areas is against the safety rules. You might say, “The safety rules about private areas are to help keep you safe. Unless I say it is okay, it can be unsafe to let someone touch your private areas or try to have you touch their private areas or to make or show pictures or videos about people and their private areas.” If a child asks why again, adults can say, “Because that is our safety rule.”
We grownups get to do many things that kids don’t, such as driving a car. As responsible adults, part of our job is to decide what the safety rules are for our family, including where we go and when we talk with people and when we don’t. Our kids’ job is to Check First with their responsible adults before they talk with someone they don’t know well – and before they change the plan about going anywhere with anyone.
Suppose a child asks why you will chat with someone standing in line with you at the store but not with someone who is asking for money on the street. You might say, “Because it is my job to decide when and where I talk with people.”
If your child is observant enough to notice that you talk with some people you don’t know well and not with others, you can make the reason for your decision about the situation or behavior rather than about the person’s appearance, being as specific to what actually happened as possible. For example, “I am glad you noticed because that shows you are using your awareness and thinking. Your job is to Check First before talking with someone we don’t know well. My job is to choose when to talk with people and where to talk with them and who to talk with. I feel more comfortable talking with someone I don’t know well who is _________ (waiting in line at the store; fixing the fire hydrant; hiking with their family at the park) rather than with someone I don’t know well who is ______ (sitting on the sidewalk; sleeping in the park; sitting in their car; asking for money; acting upset).”
If your child asks why again, you can just say cheerfully, “Because it’s my job to choose” and try change the subject. If a child asks what might happen and you think it is appropriate for this child’s level of understanding and sensitivity, you might say, “Sometimes people have problems that cause them to start to bother other people. And I try to choose to talk with people who I think are less likely to have that kind of problem.”
A child who keeps asking about safety issues might have heard or read something upsetting. Often, you can find out what your child is thinking by answering the “Why?” question with your own question, “What do you think?” The answer can tell you what kind of help or information this child needs.
If a persistent curious child wants more and more details about bad things that might happen, you can set a boundary by saying, “I don’t want to talk about the bad things that might happen. I want to talk about how you can stay safe most of the time and how you can get help if you need to.”
Too much information too soon about details of bad things that might happen can be overwhelming for a child. Our job as adults is to encourage our children to enjoy being kids, while giving them the tools they need to grow up as safely and happily as possible.
Published: March 8, 2012 | Last Updated: July 27, 2016