The bio for the Cup of Jo blog’s Instagram account says “Come for the blog, stay for the comments.” That’s because the women’s lifestyle site, run by Brooklyn-based writer Joanna Goddard, has become known for a supportive, open community of readers who love Goddard’s content which includes thoughtful, warmhearted and inclusive parenting advice on Motherhood Mondays. So as kids (including her sons Toby, 8, and Anton, 5) go back to school, we thought there’d be no one better to talk about how to teach your kids about the tough topics – and to reassure you that there are No Stupid Questions.
How do you talk to kids about serious topics?
My mom says, “With kids you really wanna take their joys and fears seriously.” And I think about that a lot as a parent. Kids are so just intuitive, they pick up so much about the world around them, they are way smarter than they think a lot of people give them credit for. I just always want to make sure that I’m answering their questions in a fair way, just taking an interest.
How do you talk to kids about death?
My husband’s brother and my sister’s husband, so two of my brothers-in-law, they both died a few years ago. That was a huge thing in our family, and something we had to talk about with our children in a constant and real way for that whole time, just talking seriously with them about illness and death and grief.
I’ll have a one on one conversation with a child, even though I have two children. I like to talk at bedtime, ’cause I think then it’s really cozy, it always feels really safe, quiet. It’s in the dark, so you’re not just staring at them. It’s an easy way to talk to somebody. And then I’ll just give them little bite-sized pieces, a little bit at a time. And I let them ask questions, or I’ll follow up a couple days later just because I think it’s a lot to take in as a little kid, and often they need time to go away and process it and come back to you. I think that’s a good way to do it.
Sometimes I don’t even know what questions they’re gonna come up with. Sometimes it’s really random. I would want to tell [other] parents, “Don’t be offended if they have weird questions.” They ask questions that sort of can seem off-color, but they’re just trying to figure it all out. So, then I was open to whatever they wanted to ask me.
And lastly, always reassure kids that it’s not their fault. Little kids are such narcissists. The world revolves around them completely when they’re so little. Even though it seems crazy that they would think, like, cancer was their fault. I’m always saying, “No, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault,” a ton of times just to make sure that box is checked.
How do you respond to kids if you’re not sure how to answer a difficult question?
Sometimes their questions are so surprising! I always just say, “That’s such a good question. Thank you so much for asking me. I just wanna think about it a little bit more before I respond, to make sure I give you a really good answer, the right answer. I’m gonna go think about it, or research it, and then we’ll talk about it tomorrow, or in the next couple days.” And then I make sure I bring it up again. I don’t make that their responsibility.
As soon as kids — no matter how old they are — ask questions about sex, or death, or illness, they have the right to get a real, honest answer. And I think it’s good to remember as a parent, if you’re nervous about stuff like this — you worry you might get it wrong or say the wrong thing — it’s not one conversation that you have with your kids and never talk about it again. You’re gonna have lots of these casual talks, age-appropriately, with your kids over many years
How do you make difficult conversations easier?
Books are so key. My son was 4 when he busted out the whole, “Where did I come from?” and The Baby Tree was a really charming, age-appropriate book. For older kids there’s a series of books, [for example] It’s Not the Stork. And for teenagers, It’s Perfectly Normal, which goes way more in depth about everything. Adoption, different types of family structures, masturbation, puberty.
What if your kid walks in on you having sex?
What I would say honestly is, “Get a lock for your door.“ If your kid is really young, they might not understand what’s going on, but if they’re older than 5 or whatever, ideally they know what sex means. And you can say that you were having sex. I mean, I just think to be really direct with my kids. They’re, like I said, kids are really smart. And if you’re not awkward, or at least pretend not to be awkward, I don’t they think that it’s awkward. It’s just a normal thing to talk about. And then I’d be open to any other questions. Maybe they would think that means they’re gonna have a little brother or little sister. So, whatever questions they have, answer them clearly and simply. I just let them guide the conversation if they’re older. And [in the future], they won’t feel awkward about bringing something up. They know that you will just be straightforward and direct.
How should you react if your child comes to you with a big problem, like bullying or anxiety?
Anytime your kid tells you something that seems difficult and vulnerable, the first thing to say is, “Thank you for telling me.” I think it can be really hard to bring something up to your parent. Especially if you feel maybe the [situation] is your fault … It’s nice if first [the parent says], “Thank you for telling me.” I think that’s just good advice in general, when someone at any age shares anything difficult.
My mom used to often tell us, “There’s nothing you could ever do or say that would make me not love you,” and sometimes I’ll remind my children, even at random times, that they can always tell me anything. These types of statements help your child come to see you as a safe landing place — their ally and protector and guiding light. Also, remember that your child might not come to you about bullying, so keep an eye out for signs: refusal to go to school, bedwetting, stomach aches, a change in behavior or school performance, and so on.
What should you do if you believe your child is being bullied?
The first step is to obviously, hear what they have to say, talk to the teachers in the school about their take on things. Suggest that your child tell the bully to stop in a calm, clear voice — something like, “Knock it off.” If speaking up seems too hard, walk away and find an adult. Never fight back because things can escalate or you might get in trouble yourself. In the future, I’d tell my child to talk to adults they trust (including his parents, of course!), and stay near adults and other kids. Great books that address bullying are Stick & Stone, The Invisible Boy and Wonder.
What should you do if your child does something that disappoints you like cheating, shoplifting or bullying?
I would talk to the child about it first, and ask him about why that happened. ‘Cause you wanna see if they have a reason that surprises you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re just doing kind of a naughty thing, but they might have a real reason behind it. Peer pressure, they’re scared of failure, whatever. And that will help guide your conversation.
Then I’m always thinking about how to teach my children to be kind and empathetic. We read books about empathy, like A Sick Day for Amos McGee or How Full Is Your Bucket?. And I point out and compliment them when they are being extra kind and friendly to others, to help make them see that as a big part of their identity. And I’ll try to encourage them in positive ways. Instead of “Don’t be rough!” I’ll say, “Be gentle with your friends.” Instead of “Don’t be rude!” I’ll ask, “What’s a kinder way to say that?” It helps them reframe their actions in a more empathetic way, and see the goal more clearly.