How am I supposed to explain this?

Coming up with answers at a time when answers are scarce.

“How am I going to explain this to my kids?”

It’s a common refrain, one you’re liable to hear any time a situation of any delicacy or complexity presents itself. The speakers of the phrase, they want you to understand where their concern is rooted. It’s not their own hang-ups or lack of understanding that’s at issue — they’re fine with it, they get it — but won’t someone please think of the children? The children, *they* won’t understand!

What a person taking this rhetorical stance ignores, however, are two fundamental truths about kids and their ability to understand the world.

First: children are naturally empathetic, open-minded, and readily accepting of the confusing realities of the world. They absorb fundamental truths of the universe multiple times a day, taking in new knowledge with the casual indifference and acceptance we might have in deciding what to have for lunch. They just learned about gravity last week; they’re open to new ideas. If you explain something to them patiently and respectfully, in non-infantilizing terms, they will probably understand it.

Second: if they’re young enough, they won’t have any capacity to fact-check you and you can just make things up.

The former approach, which do I prefer to use whenever it’s feasible, has been essential in teaching two my small children to grasp difficult concepts like money, privilege, and death. I try to tell my kids about the world as it is, warts and all, as best I can without scaring them or scarring them. Sheltering them from uncomfortable truths, treating them either as taboo or as not our problem, prevents them from building the necessary emotional knowledge and coping skills to grow into kind, caring people.

The latter comes in useful a lot, though. I suppose it was inevitable — as someone who grew up devouring Calvin & Hobbes books — that as I aged I would progress from identifying with Calvin’s precocious old soul of a child to identifying with his father, a tired man just trying to give whatever explanation that will make the questions stop.

Why do I have to eat peas? You have to eat peas because they make your hair grow longer. Don’t you want longer hair? You don’t? Oh, yeah, no, they only make it longer if you want it to. They also make you stronger, like Daddy. Daddy is strong, as far as you know, and it’s because he eats all his peas.

Where did Mufasa go in The Lion King? He had to go on a business trip. He’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the rest of the movie. He’ll be back on Thursday.

Do tornadoes ever happen around here? You know, there’s a funny thing about that. Our neighborhood has a tornado repellent. You know that big tower out by the main road with the antenna on it? It dissolves tornadoes. If one came down the street, it’d stop it just like that. There’s one by your school, too. Yeah, and one by Grandma’s house.

Can we go to the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Sure, yeah. Later.

Where did my Halloween candy go? Your what?

Why can’t I see my friend across the street right now? Why am I not going to school any more? When can we go to Grandma’s house again?

[deep sigh]

I don’t want to lie about this, but I don’t want to tell the truth.

I don’t want to scare them, but I’m scared. I want to tell them I know what’s going to happen, and that everything is going to be fine, but I don’t have a damned clue what’s going to happen and I’m not convinced that things will be fine. I wish I could tell them when this is going to be over, but only a fool or a charlatan would set a date for an unknowable situation like this to end. I wish there was an easy lie, but there isn’t.

So here’s what I’m saying.

Things are a little strange right now. A lot of people are getting sick. It doesn’t seem like many kids are getting sick, which is good — you don’t have to worry about that. A lot of people are, though, and even if you don’t get sick, you can pass it along to someone else who might get sick. So right now, we’re staying inside. Mommy and Daddy are working from home right now, which is why you’ve watched Frozen 2 six times this week. We can still leave the house, for now, but we’re not going to go anywhere for a little while. We’ll just take a walk around the neighborhood and enjoy the fresh air. We can say hi to people, but we need to keep our distance. We’re going to do the best we can, and we’re going to stay positive.

It’s just going to be a little weird for a while.

I’ve worried plenty about what this time will mean to them someday. They’re old enough now to be making long-term memories, and it’s increasingly likely that some of their earliest ones will someday be of that spring we couldn’t even play with our best friends. Maybe the lesson they take from it is one worth remembering, though.

We owe something to other people. We have obligations to keep, even if it makes our lives difficult for a while. We can’t always do what we want to do, and even if we’re pretty sure that something isn’t going to hurt us, we have to be mindful of how it might hurt others who aren’t as fortunate as we are. Some people don’t believe this, and we aren’t always going to be able to change their minds.

We can only do our best right now.

Also, your Halloween candy evaporated.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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