Answering Our Children & Their Questions

"Where do babies come from?" we asked our parents ... and watched them panic. With beads of perspiration on the brow, and an air of reverent seriousness, they sat us down and explained the mysteries of human reproduction. No more. Parents and kids of the 90's discuss these matters with an almost casual open-ness -- de-mystified by TV and movies and school sex-ed programs. But other questions make us nervous: Where did Grandma go when she died? Where does God live? Where are the dinosaurs in the Bible's story of Creation? Questions of spirituality, of death, of ultimate truths, still hold a mystery for us. How do we help kids address these questions?

Here are five suggestions:

(1) Honor the Question and the Questioner. Never insult or dismiss a child's question. Even if you don't know the answer. Even if the question upsets you. Even if this isn't the right time for the question...encourage the child to ask questions. How many of us lost our love for reflective thinking, or our respect for Torah and its teachers because our questions were dismissed and our motives denigrated? If the question is inappropriate at the time, create a way for questions to be saved for another time, e.g.: Question Box, or a Question Book. If the question upsets you, explain your feelings ("It's a wonderful question, but when I remember Grandma, I always get very sad because I miss her so much.") And if you don't know the answer, don't be afraid to acknowledge that to your child. What makes these questions so wonderful is that they are the fundamental, un-answerable questions of life. Haven't you ever stopped to wonder, Where did Grandma go? Children are natural philosophers: They ask the fundamental questions ... but they ask in their own language, and must be answered in that language as well.


(2) Listen for the Emotions behind the Question. Sometimes a question reflects an intellectual puzzlement, and calls for a thoughtful answer. But very often, the question reflects an emotional need: At a certain stage of cognitive development, the child figures out that Grandma was mommy's mommy. And if Grandma can die, then mommy can die. And if mommy dies, I'm left alone. The child's question, "Where did Grandma go?", may not be a question about the metaphysics of death at all, but rather an expression of the child's need for reassurance: You will not be abandoned. It is answered best, not with an intellectual discussion of life and death, but with a hug and warm words of reassurance and affection.


(3) If you don't know the answer, don't be embarrassed. Most of these questions have no single, true and complete answer. And they certainly have no definitive answer in Jewish tradition. Instead, they are the very questions we've been wrestling with for centuries. .. Do not tell an untruth just to placate the child. Do not lie to a child just to appear like you have an answer. If you say, "Grandma went on a long trip..." the child will want to know when she's coming back, why she doesn't write, and will eventually realize that you've lied. If you say, "Dying is like going to sleep..." your child will never again go to bed quietly.

Do not tell a child something childish. And do not try and tell the child your grown-up conceptions. Try and tell a child, "God has no physical appearance. God is a spirit." See what happens. The child will ask you (and appropriately so!), "What's a spirit?" What is, after all, the nature of a non-physical reality?

Be careful with your words. Remember that children take everything we say literally. If you say, "We buried Grandma in the cemetery." Can you imagine the gruesome image the child will have in mind?! Be honest, open and specific: "Grandma died. She doesn't live in her body anymore. She doesn't feel anything. She isn't hungry or thirsty. She isn't hot or cold. We brought her body to a special place and buried it in the ground." Your child will appreciate your frankness.


(4) Ask the child, What do you think? And wait for an answer. Let the kid think out an answer. But be very patient. Kids raised on TV don't like to think. They will do anything NOT to think. You have to force them to think. Don't give in to the begging for your answer. Learn to say: "I don't know. Where could we go to find out?" "I don't know who could we go and ask?" Let's find a book in the library that might help us answer your question. Let's ask the rabbi. When the child does give an answer, extend the thinking. You tell me, "God lives in heaven"? Where's that? Is it in the sky? Could an astronaut see it? "Heaven" is, after all, a metaphor: a symbol for something we have no words to express.

The only time you should intervene in the child's thinking is to correct dangerous notions. When my child said, "The earthquake was God's punishment." I responded that the earthquake was caused by pressure deep within the earth. God, in my belief, doesn't punish. Sickness, death, natural calamities are not punishments, but accidents of nature. God was present, not in the earthquake, but in the care and love our neighbors showed in coming by to check on us. God was present in the efforts of firefighters and the police to rescue and protect us. God was present in the concern and help shared by members of the Temple and the community.


(5) Remember that your role is not to provide an answer to a question. Your role is to empower the child. Help the child to explore, discover, evaluate, choose, his/her own answers to these fundamental questions of life. Challenge the child to formulate his/her own theology. Help your child to enjoy the great adventure of ideas reflected in the Jewish tradition. And while you're at it...I hope you also enjoy the adventure of parenting and the personal growth it brings. So, where does God live? ... In the minds and hearts of growing children and loving parents who share their questions and answers. That's what I think, what do you think?

by Rabbi Edward Feinstein


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