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A tough question from a small child

Columnist

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My wife and I are parents to two beautiful, wonderful kids, 6 and 2, both adopted at birth. I am estranged from my family, who did not want us to adopt an African American baby (my wife is Caucasian and I’m Asian American). So, for the past six-plus years, I have not seen my parents nor have they met their grandkids.

It’s not as awful as it sounds — I’ve never had a happy family life and in many ways my life is better off this way, as cold as that sounds. My wife’s family has been superb in providing a loving, nurturing environment for our kids.

Anyway, my 6-year-old is starting to ask questions about my parents. I don’t want him to take away from our talk that he was the cause of the estrangement, that it’s his fault. Thank you for any help!

Explaining not-so-nice grandparents

A young kid’s questions may touch on very deep and difficult issues, but the answers don’t need to be deep and difficult. Not yet, at least. Your answer need only be true and sufficient to satisfy your son’s curiosity.

So, if he asks where his other grandparents are, you can say that you and your parents have chosen not to spend time together. Then you wait for the next question — typically, “Why?” — and answer that one with another small piece of the whole answer. “We’re opposites in some important ways.” And so on.

At any point, you can say, “I’m not ready to answer that question, but I’ll let you know when I am.” It’s also extremely useful to ask your son questions of your own. “What do you think?” can not only buy you time, but also help you gauge how much he comprehends. His answer can also enlighten you, since there’s so much freedom in the way children think.

Often, there won’t be a follow-up question because your small answer sufficed. Given the limits to a small child’s ability to comprehend, you likely won’t have to answer the Big Question until you’ve laid a foundation of small answers.

Because the punch line of your story is so emotionally fraught, please figure out what you’re ultimately going to say to your kids when they’re old enough to hear the whole story; a good therapist can help. Just be very clear that the estrangement was a choice you made for your own benefit and one you’d make again.

Re: Estranged grandparents:

After my divorce, my ex-husband told me he’d never see our son again. He was punishing me, obviously. I very carefully answered my son’s questions to try to minimize his hurt and not make his father sound like a jerk. I sent my ex school reports, photos, letters with updates about my son’s activities. I avoided judgment, accusations, ugliness.

Finally, after 15 years, my ex contacted my son. They are building a relationship now and my son never had to know what [a nether part] his father was. I’m happy for my son and very proud of the way he has graciously allowed his father back into his life.

Anonymous

Oh, he knows. But he didn’t hear it from you — and that’s huge.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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