We’ll explain when you’re older

We'll explain when you're older

Last week, my daughter asked me “what’s that blue and yellow flag?” while I was taking her to school. People have been hanging the Ukrainian flag in their windows, as a show of support. So, do I tell her, or wait until she’s older?

The problem

As my daughter is becoming older, she is starting to pick up on more adult problems. At the start of the pandemic she was happy enough going to playgrounds with me on workdays, and didn’t understand lockdowns. A few week ago, she muttered ‘stupid Covid’ when we couldn’t go somewhere. And now there’s a war to explain.

As a parent, that’s not a simple problem. On the one hand there’s the question: can I explain it in a way my child will understand it? And should I put such weighty things on the shoulders of a care-free child? Or should I wait until they’re older?

And then there’s the added complication of them talking in school. My daughter has two teachers, each with their own ideas, and some twenty-five classmates. So, the question is not just: ‘should I explain it?’, but also ‘do I want this explained to her by another six-year old instead?’

Our approach

My wife and I try not to shield our daughter too much. In some ways I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a helicopter parent, but I’ve come to the conclusion that that just isn’t true. We give my daughter a lot of leeway, but she’s such a strong-willed daredevil that it feels like we’re still helicoptering, sometimes. But really, we do let her find her own way. So, when it comes to things that some parents might say ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’, we choose to explain things, in terms my daughter hopefully understands.

So, when one of her friend’s grandparents died, we didn’t tell her ‘they were in a better place’, or some other euphemism. We explained what death was, and why that makes it sad, and that it’s okay to feel sad about it.

The same with Covid. We didn’t say ‘you’ll understand when you’re older.’ We explained there was a disease, and that it was dangerous, and could put one of her grandparents in the hospital if we weren’t careful. Maybe not something you want to put on a kid, but I firmly believe that things like lockdowns are easier to swallow for a child, if you explain why it is so important. Children are not stupid, they just lack a lot of knowledge. And you’ll note me not immediately telling her it could in fact kill her grandparents.

So, after we passed that Ukrainian flag in the street, I told her there was a war. That some people had decided to fight other people to boss them around. Of course that led to the inevitable question: ‘do people die?’ which I confirmed. And the follow-up ‘and children?’, which I had to confirm as well. And so we quickly agreed that war was very bad. Case closed, back to the important matter of ‘can I watch TV when we get home?’.

Know your child

Of course, not all children are born equal. Our approach works for us, because my daughter has a pretty sturdy character. She doesn’t scare easily. Some of her friends are much more easily frightened. Some of them can’t watch Frozen, and will lay awake at night if they hear the wrong things.

In that case, I would sugar coat things a lot more. But some part of me hopes that the reason my daughter is so stable, is because we haven’t shielded her. In the long run, the world isn’t without its horrors, and everybody will have to see those horrors at some point. I believe keeping children in the dark too much will make the things that do leak through hit home harder. And of course, the more you expect your child to freak out, the more likely your child will pick up on it… and freak out.

I’m a firm believer of easing a child into that, no-nonsense, in simple terms. Not try to protect them until a mythical age that they can ‘handle it’, because that’s condescending and an easy excuse to never have to explain. Especially since the older they get, the less you can control what they learn from other sources. But of course it should always be at a pace that they can handle. I wouldn’t want to give my daughter a trauma, but I wouldn’t want her unable to cope with problems either, when bad stuff will inevitably happen. That pace is probably different for each child, at least I think so.


So should you take my advice? No, you shouldn’t, because I’m not really giving any advice. I’m sharing my experience. My experiences may be useful in finding your own way, but in the end you should always do what you feel is right, and what works for you.

So, I try to never say ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ when I can avoid it, and that seems to work for my situation. Do with that what you will, or read this post again when you’re older.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands