My 3 year old surprised me the other night. It didn’t surprise me that he snuck out of bed and was listening/watching undetected from the top of the stairs as my husband and I chatted with my parents and enjoyed a piece of ice cream cake. It didn’t surprise me that we heard the pitter-patter of his little feet running back to bed as he heard us come up the stairs, or that he jumped in bed and pretended to be asleep as we walked in the room. Once we started talking to him, it didn’t surprise me that he brought up the ice cream cake.
What surprised me is that he had pieced together everything that had happened for us to have the ice cream cake. He told me that it was the same ice cream cake they have at Carvel and asked if Daddy had gone to Carvel, opened the freezer, taken out the cake, put it on the counter, paid for it, taken it to the car, drove it home and put it in our freezer. “Is that what happened, Mommy?” he asked. Yes, son. That’s what happened.
This isn’t the only time I’ve been surprised by how much my kids understand.
I bring this up because lots of times, as a parent, I avoid explaining things to my kids because I assume they’re not going to be able to understand what I’m saying, or that they don’t really understand what they’re seeing. But that’s not the case.
When kids start asking a lot of questions, it usually indicates that they will start understanding a lot more answers too. This makes life more complicated for parents. To be honest, I’m sometimes more focused on appeasing my child with my explanations in order to have a little peace and quiet than I am on how much he’s understanding and whether my explanation is understandable, but challenging to his current level of development.
Does it really matter? I’ve decided that it does. By not explaining things to our kids, or by giving silly “baby” explanations, we prevent them from applying the level of understanding they actually have. And, if they’ve understood more about a situation than we realize and don’t get a good explanation from us, we’re implicitly encouraging them to look for explanations elsewhere. They’re not going to be satisfied with a bad explanation – they’re going to try somewhere else.
Our kids turn to us as their first source of information. That gives us the opportunity to form a very strong parent-child bond, and help them find the answers they’re looking for. Right now, they’re asking about why grandpa doesn’t answer the phone, or where the ants come from, or why we can’t get on the airplane this week instead of next. But years from now, they’re going to be looking for guidance on important, life-defining issues.
I want my kids to feel comfortable coming to me with their questions, and confident that I will give them, or help them find good answers, now and in the future. This takes investment on my part now. It’s not enough to dish out a mindless explanation; I have to put some thought into my explanations to answer the questions in a way that my child understands and is satisfied, but also challenged by the answer so his wheels keep turning too (and, yes, generating more questions!). There’s a reason little kids are so inquisitive, and it isn’t just to drive the parents nuts! It’s because they understand so much more than we realize now, and are looking to put everything in its place in their little minds. Let’s help them with that.
A final thought: This is also why I work very hard on making sure the answers I give my kids are TRUTHFUL. I don’t tell them the boogeyman is going to chase them if they misbehave. I have nothing against pretend play and developing their imagination. But I believe my kids are capable of understanding reality, and giving them true answers from a young age will satisfy their thirsty minds far more than stories about the boogeyman or Mr. Invisible. First off, they often understand more than we realize, and might realize we’re not telling them the truth – and that can send them conflicting messages. But even if that’s not the case, the sooner our kids understand real causes and effects, the sooner they will learn how to make decisions based on the outcomes they want, and the sooner they will learn how to take responsibility for their choices to the degree they are capable of. My three year old can already do this to a certain extent. He knows that many things depend on choices he makes. He also knows that some things don’t. He doesn’t understand things completely, but he understands a lot, and I want his thirst for answers to be filled with truths that will help him not only now, but also later one as he continues developing and maturing.
God bless all of you that have also embarked on this wonderful journey of parenting! Remember, your child understands more than you think – take the time to answer them now both to help them grow and to strengthen your relationship for the future.