Preserving the innocence of my children is important to me, but it's also important to me that we be engaged in our culture and the world around us. We aren't hermits, we aren't cloistered religious, we live in this world. And that means my children are going to be exposed to some concepts that I would have just as soon they never heard about at all, let alone heard about as children. Figuring out how to handle that fact has been a journey for me.
My oldest son was a very bright and observant little kid. He was always very aware of his surroundings, asking me about things he overheard in grown-up conversations, or read on billboards, or heard about from kids in the neighborhood. My policy with him was to almost always tell him that that was a topic for grownups and that we would discuss it when he was older. We prayed for an end to abortion without him understanding what that was. We had a Prop 8 (defense of marriage) sign up in our yard when he was six years old, but again, decided not to tell him what it meant. He didn't know that there was such a thing as divorce or out-of-wedlock births. We even debated about explaining the concept of kidnapping or bad guys in general, not wanting to destroy his trust in the goodness of most people, but wanting him to know what to do in the very unlikely event that he was in danger.
But, eventually, I realized that I was going to have to talk to this kid about some stuff. I wanted to take the kids to say the Rosary outside the abortion clinic, and we became close friends with a family who have one child who has a different mom, born before our friends were married. I couldn't keep avoiding all of these topics forever.
But by this point, since I had waited so long, it had to be a Big Important Conversation. I suppose there's a place in life for Big Important Conversations, but I don't remember any of the ones I had with my own parents with a particular fondness and I sure didn't like being on the giving end of one either.
So I've totally changed how I approach touchy subjects with my kids. Here's what we do now:
1. If I don't like it, I don't make a big deal about it.
Let's call it the Voldemort method. I am not afraid anymore to name a thing for my kids. Instead of attempting to shield them as much as possible from any concept of a particular subject, I try to allow them to gain an awareness of it and an understanding of our family's position on the matter, but without any big to-do.
This is especially true of subjects that are not immoral, just kind of uncomfortable: like menstruation and how we get babies. I'm grateful that my kids have been exposed to mating behaviors in our chickens, and have the general concept of male and female coming together to make new babies and that we can't get baby chicks when we don't have a rooster. I also try to have my daughters witness menstruation and get a small explanation of what's going on in my body now, rather than waiting until they are going through it themselves and having a Big Conversation.
Of course, I would prefer that my children did not have to know about same-sex marriage, and child abuse, and divorce, and abortion at all, ever. But they WILL have to know about those things eventually, and I'd rather that it happened in a controlled environment.
I have found that little by little is a much less traumatic way to gain information than completely oblivious to Big Conversation. So, I am comfortable with my children, even my very young children, understanding that some men want to be married to other men or that sometimes people who aren't married do the "special kind of hug" that God wants only Mommies and Daddies to do together, and so sometimes babies are born without a whole family.
2. The car is absolutely the best place for uncomfortable conversations.
Whenever possible, I'd prefer that the information-gathering be child-led. I am guardedly open in my own conversation, and don't avoid controversial subjects entirely. My hope is that they put together for themselves a general concept of something, then come to me and ask a question, rather than to sit them down and give them a Big Talk that they might not be interested in.
Most often, our conversations happen in the car. I'm a captive audience for my kids there, plus there's no eye contact required in car conversations, so that tends to be where my kids ask me things. It also helps that I always wait until we've been driving a while to turn on the radio, or CD, or even to start our Rosary. I want to give the kids a chance to bring up anything they've been wanting to talk about, controversial or mundane.
It is very, very important to me that my kids feel they can come and talk to me about anything. I want to foster an environment in which we can talk about anything, even evil or immoral things, without feeling that even a conversation about a particular thing would be wrong. I think that my former policy of putting off almost all my son's questions didn't help with that.
3. When my kids ask questions, I answer them, but I start very, very small. Often, that's enough.
When my kids do bring up a touchy subject, it can be tempting to launch into a detailed treatment of that and all related matters. But I have found out through experience that sometimes, all my child wanted was a very small, specific answer. And my broad answer had kinda freaked them out. So now, I start with a small answer, then if the child has follow-up questions, I answer those.
I remember, on a day at the lake from my own childhood, pointing out that one dragonfly was giving another dragonfly a ride. My aunt pointedly explained to me what was really going on with those dragonflies. I remember it so vividly. I really wish she hadn't.
Sometimes, our kids get exposed to a concept not on our preferred timetable. A parish announcement about child sexual abuse (a friend just went through this one) or a homosexual family member, can sometimes force our hand on discussing issues with our kids. But, again, for our family, I think the best policy has been to address the issue, call it by its name, and only answer the questions my kids actually have about the matter.
I have on occasion been sure a big question was coming only to find my kids hadn't noticed the situation at all.
4. I try to make these moments lessons in compassion rather than in horror.
When we do have these conversations about abortion, or divorce, or out-of-wedlock births, I try to emphasize how unfortunate the act is and how complicated the effects of the act are, rather than how sinful the person is who is committing the act.
After all, we are all sinners, and I don't personally find it very helpful to dwell on how much worse other people's sins are than are my own.
Abortion, for example, is a tragedy for every person involved from the mother and the father and their extended families to the doctors and nurses and cleaning crews at the clinics. I want my children to pray for all of these people. I want them to understand that many people who participate in an abortion feel like they have no other options, or wrongly feel like they are helping a woman. Then we can pray that God will soften their hearts and heal them.
I try to focus on homosexuality and out of wedlock relations as just not God's plan for us, and not the way to feel happy and fulfilled and connected to God and our fellow man. Also, how inclinations aren't sinful, only actions.
Again, only you can know what's right for your particular child.
For me, when my four year old prays for an end to abortion, it feels right that she understands what she's saying. And if any of my kids want to know what those dragonflies are really up to, I will tell them. But only if they ask.