When I found myself having to explain to my very-young children that their father wasn’t coming home (he’d been convicted that afternoon, and would spend the next decade in prison), I didn’t have the words, or the emotional strength, if I’m being honest, to explain what was going on. I also knew I couldn’t just pretend everything was OK and “Daddy’s away on a trip”, or any of the other ridiculous (albeit well-meaning) proposals people were slinging my way.
That conversation didn’t happen all at once, and it evolved over the years, but I was open with them, to the best of our shared ability, not just about the situation with their dad BUT also about the ways I needed them to adjust so we could all function.
There was NO WAY I could carry the whole burden of maintaining our world, so I did what I had to (work, paying bills, mowing the yard) and they learned how to help (folding socks, taking out trash, thinking about ways we could get creative with our food budget…). As a result (and with the help of some therapy and more than a few “it’s ok to cry” nights), they came through that experience with incredible empathy, problem-solving skills, and some killer recipes, to boot!
It’s not just these “black swan” experiences that create this knee-jerk drive to “Protect the Children!” The tendency to protect our kids kicks in in lots of ways that so many people face.
“Don’t tell them Grandpa died. We don’t want them to be upset.”
“They don’t need to worry that you lost your job! Let them believe everything is OK.”
There are endless examples of ways we’re taught and encouraged to shield our children from the negative aspects of the Human Condition. And this, I believe, is a massive mistake.
Obviously you don’t necessarily need to get into the deep dark science of oncology to explain to your three-year-old that Grandpa has cancer, and discussing the psychology behind family dynamics and economic theory probably isn’t helpful to your ten-year-old. Resilience is a lot like a muscle, though. We develop resilience through the practical experiences of running headlong into challenges, and finding ways to overcome them.
I appreciate the sentiment of wanting to allow children to “be children” and not carry the burdens of adulthood. There’s a huge difference between sending your 6-year-old to work in the coal mines because their father died and you need the income, and having honest conversations about family challenges that WILL affect them, one way or other, and I’m not suggesting we convene a Council of Peers where we engage our small children in solution-finding initiatives (although involving your pre-teens and teenagers? Maybe not such a bad idea!). That being said, shielding them from the fact that STUFF HAPPENS robs them of the opportunity to practice, in age-appropriate ways, skills that will serve them extremely well in their adult lives.
I see this happen in parallel streams all the time. I know people who went away to college (or even graduated FROM college) never knowing how to do their own laundry, balance their own bank accounts, or prepare *any* food whatsoever. None of those people died as a result of their parents’ “helicopter” style of parenting, but they all had incredibly rude surprises waiting for them when the switch finally flipped and WHAM! They had to figure out, with almost no warning and virtually no warm-up, how to Manage Life As An Adult, and the efforts to “make life easier for them” actually wound up making life WAY, way harder, in some pretty weird and sociologically fascinating but empathetically heart-wrenching ways.
Childhood is the time when we figure stuff out while we have our family as a safety net. We practice skills with the “training wheels” of our parents or adult caregivers there as trusted advisors. (I think this is one of the reasons the 21-yr drinking age is also a social nightmare, but I’ll save THAT for another conversation!).
Emotional resilience is a skill set, just like cooking, cleaning, financial management, driving, and all the rest.
Why would we deny our children, our most precious resources, the opportunity to learn resilience with us there at their side? Why do we expect them to just magically grow up and PRESTO! All the wisdom of the universe to magically appear in their brain?
So what does “age-appropriate” mean? I don’t think there’s an iron-clad rule that you can discuss death at age 5, and job loss at age 9, and infidelity at age 14, or whatever. You know your kids (hopefully…) and where they are on the emotional maturity scale. The good news is we live in an age of insta-access to zillions of resources about this kind of thing. You can google “How to talk to your kids about…” and get expert suggestions. Check them out, do a gut-check and see which ones feel like they might be useful for your situation, and then have the conversation.
AND – and it’s a big and… if you are co-parenting in a family with “bonus parents”, however, that manifests, of course, this adds a huge layer of complexity to this situation. Parenting by committee is HARD, y’all. And you can’t control how other people will react, of course, and navigating the complexity of even best-case situations where everyone is 100% focused on getting the kids to adulthood whole, healthy and ready to launch their own lives is still HARD – and I encourage you intentionally to have those conversations, as difficult as they may be.
If difficult conversations themselves are the challenge, consider picking up a copy of books like “Crucial Conversations” or “Nonviolent Communication” (there’s even a teen version of that one!) to bolster your own skillset. Don’t let that discomfort rob you and your family of opportunities to come together in the hard times and learn together. Sometimes the fresh eyes of the children who see the world through a very different lens than their parents can offer incredibly valuable insight. I’ve been floored, personally and professionally, at how ideas from “Out of the mouths of babes” can have a massive beneficial impact on how people navigate shared challenges.
And, here’s a little #protip from somebody who both WAS a child and raised a whole slew of them herself… your kids KNOW something’s not right. They might not understand exactly what is off-kilter, but they are programmed to sense when we’re stressed. By not explaining, albeit in age-appropriate and manageable ways, you’re not protecting them. You’re just cutting off a channel of open and honest conversation, which is also a life skill we really, deeply need our kids to have, both in their interactions with us and others!
Rather than hiding reality and hoping things somehow come together with the kids (or your teams! Yes, this has applicability in the workplace, too, leaders…) being none-the-wiser, consider using these as opportunities to come together, harnessing the potential of everyone involved. You’ll all be better for it, and who knows… you might even learn a thing or two along the way!