Q: My son just turned 5 and is starting to ask various questions about parents including why some people have two parents and he only has one. About two months before he turned two, his “donor” said he wasn’t “feeling it” (his exact words) with him and didn’t want to participate in his life anymore. How can I explain that to my son? My son has no recollection of this person, but his parents still visit and take him places as do two other members of his “dad’s” family. I am really at a loss or how to explain this without hurting his feelings or making him feel unwanted or unloved.
A: Please don’t try and explain an emotionally-complicated situation such as this to a child this age. No matter how carefully you choose your words, he will not understand what you want him to understand. The explanation will only confuse him and leave him with more questions than it answers. Furthermore, at age 5, your son does not possess the intellectual and verbal skills with which to even ask the right questions.
RULE OF THUMB: Tell a child ONLY what he ABSOLUTELY NEEDS to know when and only when he ABSOLUTELY NEEDS to know it.
Your son does not NEED to know that “Donor Dad” doesn’t want anything to do with him. By the way, I feel compelled to interrupt this answer to exclaim: What a guy! A real man’s man! A paragon of masculine virtue!
Now that I have purged those faint praises from my system, I would not explain any of the “stuff” in question until your son is (a) well into his teenage years, as in, at least fifteen, (b) is in possession of a sturdy self-image, (c) has demonstrated a good amount of emotional fortitude/resilience, and (d) virtually demands answers to his questions. When all four (not three!) conditions are present, then tell the sordid tale of Donor Dad, but don’t editorialize. As Detective Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”
Until then: Why do some children have only one parent? Because sometimes one parent is all the child needs. Why do some kids need two parents? Because they’re not as sweet as you are. Where is my father? We don’t know … he was never here. What’s his name? (Answer with first name only.) Any more “intimate” questions, answer with, “I’ll answer that when you grow up.” And let that be that.
Everyone — meaning grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on — on both sides of the family need to be on the same page about this. The bottom line is that no one, and I mean NO ONE, should be answering this child’s questions with anything but “I don’t really know. You should ask your Mommy about that.” He certainly does not need to hear one thing from (fill in the blank with a well-intentioned relative or maybe even a relative with an agenda) and another thing from you.
A personal, and hopefully helpful, story: My parents divorced when I was around two. My father didn’t come back into my life until I was nine, and then only superficially until I was a teenager and could play golf with him and understand his jokes well enough to laugh genuinely at them. Shortly after Dad showed up again, I began asking my mother why they got divorced. She would answer, “That’s none of a child’s business.” So, I would ask my father the same question when I next saw him. He would answer, “You don’t need to know that stuff … I’m not sure I even know.”
They were both on the same page about one thing, anyway. The answer to my question was none of my business and I certainly didn’t need it. What a blessing! What I was really trying to figure out, of course, was who I should blame. Kids see things in black-and-white. Furthermore, the world to a child is a simpler place if heroes and villains are clearly defined, which they rarely are. I was trying to make sense out of something that defied my brain’s ability to comprehend. (Add into all this the fact that I was the one and only kid in my neighborhood whose parents had divorced.)
If you ask me today why my parents got divorced, the honest answer is “I can give you some superficial information, but beyond that, I really don’t pretend to know. The answer is much too personal to who they were for me to understand it. And not knowing the answer and not really caring is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It has relieved me of a burden that would certainly have weighed heavily on my life.”
Another rule of thumb, learned from my parents: One of a parent’s responsibilities is that of making a child’s life as simple as possible. Children do not need to worry about things they can’t understand, and when adults try to force such understandings into their heads, worry they will.