Tricky trilogy of questions pushes parents to ponder

Placenta anyone? Not a subject I expected to be discussing with a two-year old. But that was the case, when it came to my first-born. And turns out that was one of the easier topics to get through, and the memories of those conversations are quite vivid!

Yesterday was his 18th birthday, and I’ve been reminiscing (a little mistily) about some of our more amusing moments, even as I adjust to his departure for college that came a few weeks back. I have to say – the placenta scene came to mind with a chuckle, so I thought I’d share how I fielded a very little boy’s very advanced questions. On what, besides the placenta? You got it – that trio of tricky topics that hits every parent, eventually: sex, death, and God.

Placenta please

I knew I was in for it when I stumbled out of the bedroom one Saturday morning to tend to my six-month old, only to spy my barely two-year old crouched in front of the television, one tiny hand wrapped around his pacifier, and the other, parked on his knee.

New babyWhat was on the tube? Definitely not Barney!

I’d arrived in time to witness the crowning of a baby’s head, the final bloody push of childbirth, and the newborn handed to a happy couple.

Thanks, PBS. I’m all for educational programming; couldn’t he have waited until three for such sophisticated fare?

“Mama,” my son asked, “What does the placenta do?”

OMG. Before coffee?

Not only did he catch me sleep-deprived and before coffee, but before Google, Wiki, Ask Jeeves or ask anyone other than whatever adult was around. And that adult was usually me. Remember those days? Remember having to pull explanations out of the… uh… encyclopedia?

I knew I’d get no peace until he got his answer. So I gave it a shot – best I recall, I offered something to do with the placenta being like a mini-fridge inside the mother’s belly, which strained and fed the little one while inside, and once she pushed the baby out, she pushed the placenta out because it was no longer needed.

“Okay,” he said, buying it hook, line, and frigidaire.

The Sex Question

“So how does the baby get in there?”He removed every child proof lock we tried, short of padlocks

Shit. I should’ve expected it. That question came just a few weeks later, but he’d caught me off guard again. The endless inquiries were about how things worked. And he’d been so busy lately – poking at the cooing creature I toted around in a backpack, removing the latest set of childproof locks,  dismantling his bed’s mattress and box spring, and foraging for pots which he stacked, then climbed, so he could reach anything he pleased, then take it apart. (Future engineers of the worldunite!)

“What gets the baby inside the mom is called sex,” I said.

Then I went for a simplified sperm meets egg explanation, following the requisite “man and woman love each other, hold each other close,  and their parts fit together.” I finished with a flourishing “If they’re lucky, they get a beautiful baby that grows inside the mom and turns out just like you!”

“Okay,” he said. A satisfied customer again, I think to myself. Phew.

Silly me. Of course he wanted to know which parts.  Particularly because at the time, he was helping to assemble a do-it-yourself sprinkler system soon to be installed. PVC piping, nuts and bolts and other bits of metal I never could figure out. The concept of one part screwing into another? It was a perfectly natural phenomenon to him; he just wanted more specificity. So I told him exactly what fit where, that it felt good to moms and dads who loved each other, he shrugged, and that was that.

Parts fitting together was fitting enough explanation of sexual details, at age two.With each passing year, there were, um… updates. Age appropriate, naturally.

The Death Question

My son wanted to know why I sounded funny when I spoke of my dad, and why we couldn’t see him or visit him. He wanted to know what “dead” meant. “All things alive eventually break or wear out,” I said. “And when they do, that’s called dying.”

He wanted more detail, but this one was painful. How to explain it to a two-year old without scaring him? The “heaven” story wasn’t our thing, so I went for a toy analogy.

I explained that sometimes people get very sick or badly hurt, like an action figure that is damaged and can’t be fixed. I used a similar analogy for old age; the body wears out and its batteries don’t work anymore, so it can’t keep going.

Bingo! He could relate to toys and batteries, but I wanted him to have a sense of something more. I added that as long as we had wonderful memories and stories to tell about those we loved who passed away, they would never be completely gone, like my dad was never completely gone for me.

The God Question

This was the toughest one of all. Perhaps because our beliefs are fluid, and I claim to have no answers or believe in a single “right way” to view spiritual issues. I wanted my children to have a sense of something, that would be inclusive and not divisive. When you add in the fact that we celebrate multiple traditions, it called for something a little more creative than in many of our friends’ homes.

I also believe in questioning – everything – which has been my son’s approach to the world from the beginning. And I believe in people, including those who don’t believe in God of any sort. So I took “the magic path,” so to speak, likening God to magic, suggesting that there were many things that people couldn’t see or prove, but they believed. Partly, because it feels good to believe, and partly, because everyone loves mysteries and miracles, and a bit of magic.

I also told him that I could feel God –  whatever that meant – when I looked into his face. That a new life was a sort of magic. To me, he was magical. I remember that he loved that response, and I meant every word of it. 

Recurring questions, and then some Adult and child holding hands

With the exception of the “placenta” discussion, each of these topics came up over the years, along with hundreds of others covering more areas than I could ever have imagined. Each called for an examination of my own beliefs, mixed with a desire to position things accurately but on a positive note, with an explanation that would be expandable over time.

With my younger son – everything has been different; he’s asked fewer questions, taught himself more, quietly, and accepted more, without pushing limits – until recently that is.

From my elder son, the God question returned constantly, perhaps because of his analytical mind, and partly because notions of faith are impossible to explain with facts. Ultimately, for both boys, I settled on a fairly sweeping set of beliefs in a variety of gods, spirits, angels, ghosts, magic, nature and intuition – as something felt, like love.

“What’s important,” I said, “is how you treat people, and being a good person inside.” That part they both got, even when they were toddlers. And they still do. If only we were all that smart.

Your experience with these tough parenting talks?

  • Your toughest topics yet?
  • How did you handle them?
  • Anything stop you in your tracks, without a good response?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    Wonderful how candid a parent and child can be.

    btw – the alliteration in your title, and your love of tennis, reminds me of the sports headling in the San Jose paper today (for tennis, anyways): Flustered Federer Falls in Five Sets.

    Which promptly had my 13 y.o. son and I speaking in alliteration for the rest of the morning…

    cycling son sent to school (finally)

  2. says

    Oh Wolfie, thank you for sending me this one. It’s a great great post. But all profound responses have left the mind right now. 11:06. Time for bed. But I loved it. Will take a queue from you on many of these topics as I deal with them in my own house.

  3. says

    Thanks, BLW, for drawing my attention to this post from before we met last fall. It sounds like your eldest and mine would have been fast friends (had they only been two at the same time!). I not only appreciate hearing your agile answers to your son’s questions, but also am grateful for the warning that these recent questions I’ve been getting are only the tip of the iceberg. Strap yourself in, Mom, there are plenty more where those came from!

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