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Exploring Challenging Conversations with Young Children


10/22/2021 | Erin Weisman

Have you ever heard a young child swear? For me, there’s usually a moment of visual disconnect —their sweet little faces vs. their grown-up words. As caregivers, moments like these often yield feelings of anxiety or fear…sometimes all we can do is laugh. This emotional process happens to many adults whenever a child asks us a question that has a seemingly complicated answer.

Countless sitcom parents have blushed when asked, “Where do babies come from?” and their audiences laugh when the answer is a nervous, “The stork!” When adults come face-to-face with challenging conversations with young children, we immediately attach our personal lived experiences to the topic. We have years of interactions and memories, some of which may be uncomfortable to recall. It is important to remember that our children do not come to us with these preconceived notions or prisms through which we view the question.

Piaget teaches that children create categories, or “schema,” in their minds.  They add new information to them as they learn. Young children organize learned information into the schema and then add new information as they engage in more and more social experiences. When our children come to us with any question, they are engaging in scientific study. They do not feel embarrassed or anxious because they have few lived experiences to influence their understanding of the topic. 

You have immense power at this moment. Take a deep breath, and try following these steps:

1. Listen

What is your child really asking? Repeat their question back to them. Sometimes adults get so nervous we are going to mess up our children, we make assumptions without really listening to their needs.

You know your children better than almost anyone whether you are their at-home caregiver or at school. How is your child feeling about this question? You may feel worried, but does your child? These observations should inform how you answer.

2. Acknowledge

Our goal as educators is to build a safe and comforting space in which children can explore. Regardless of your reflexive feelings, acknowledge their inquisitive passion: “That’s a thoughtful question!” This will also give you a few seconds to gather your thoughts.

If you do not know the answer to a question, model adult research practice. It is crucial for children to see that adults don’t know everything. It is perfectly reasonable to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question. How can we find out together?”

If you are a teacher and a child asks you a question that feels inappropriate for school, help them construct a community of support. Acknowledge their question and make an action plan: “Let’s write that question down together and share it with your family. That is a great question to explore at home.” Be sure to send a quick note home to give them a heads up that this conversation may come up that night.

This strategy will help you in two ways. First, you will put the power in this family’s hands over how mature or detailed the answers should be. Second, you will protect yourself as the teacher from overstepping or answering in a way that is not responsive to this family’s values. 

3. Engage

When answering a question that feels complicated, try to strip it down to its most scientific facts. You are trying to help your child build a new schema. They will add more details and social layers to this information as they get older. The goal here is to avoid both oversharing and giving students content they will later need to unlearn because it is based on your personal experiences rather than objective facts.

4. Be a Resource

Different children internalize the material in different ways. Some may benefit from conversation, others may need hands-on exploration to understand. The more multisensory the explanation, the more effectively the schema can be constructed. Varied sensory learning opportunities include visiting the library to conduct research, drawing a picture of your hypothesis, or interviewing an expert. Many children will seek follow-up support if the question affects them emotionally.

It is crucial that you answer calmly and warmly to encourage your child to come back to you if needed. When children sense our discomfort, sometimes they internalize that their curiosity is taboo. When they feel this way, they will not turn to us the next time they have a question.

In our school building, there are many types of staircases. Some are very tall and steep, some only have two or three steps. By the bathroom, there is one of these short staircases. Alongside it is a short-distance elevator. This elevator looks like the platform of a cherry picker and does not fit into my young friends’ schema of what an elevator looks like. One day, while waiting for his friends in the bathroom, one student asked me what the elevator was. I explained its function and waited.

He responded, “That’s silly. Why would anyone need that when there are stairs here?” 

I shared that not everyone has legs that can carry their bodies up and downstairs. This type of elevator makes sure everybody can get to every space in our building. 

He said, “That’s bad. Maybe they shouldn’t come into this part of the building.”

This was the moment. I took a deep breath and separated my personal experiences and complicated answers from the most scientific explanations.

Calmly, I suggested, “Different bodies need help in different ways.” I pointed out that this child’s father wears glasses to help him see clearly, but he still loves seeing new things and things he loves. People whose legs need extra help still love going to new places and exploring spaces they love.”

He was quiet for a while and then went to play with his friends. The next time we visited the bathroom by the short staircase, he repeated my words to me unprompted, “Different bodies need help in different ways. I’m glad this elevator is here to help! My daddy gets help from his glasses so he can see me!” During the initial conversation, he wasn’t in trouble, I wasn’t angry. We worked together to create a new schema. Now this child identifies tools that help people all over our neighborhood. He is a citizen of our community and is developing a schema that will help him become an empathetic citizen of the world.

Some children may need more hands-on opportunities in order to add this information to their schema of what a human body looks like and needs. I recommend adding books to your classroom or personal library about people with different types of bodies. Look for dolls that include supportive technology like wheelchairs or white canes. Increasing our children’s exposure to diverse perspectives will help them create a more accurate picture of the world.

Regardless of how serious or silly a topic feels, honor your children’s curiosity. They look to us for comfort, for information, and for connection. If you keep this in mind the next time a question flusters you, you’ll be better equipped to create a safe and loving space for inquiry and exploration.

Supplementary Resources:

For a deeper understanding of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, follow this link

Some examples of body-inclusive toys that would help a friend like the one in my example include:

A few books to consider:

"What Makes Us Unique?" by Dr. Jillian Roberts or The Only One Club By Jane Naliboff would be great books to add to your library if you have a friend like the one in my example.

"What Do You Do With an Idea?" by Kobi Yamada encourages self-confidence.

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber models question-asking.

"Why?" by Adam Rex showcases the importance of asking questions.

Listen to The Reflective Teacher Podcast to hear me speak more specifically about having conversations with young children about death:

Erin Weisman has taught in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Copenhagen, and is currently in Washington, D.C. She is always working to honor and prioritize her young friends’ perspectives when learning in the classroom. Her favorite student compliment was from a child who said, “Good for you, Ms. Erin!” when she finished a big salad at the lunch table.

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