Yesterday, I began thinking about the many parents have asked me how to talk with their kids about awful stuff like 9/11, the Sandy Hook shootings, money, politics or sex. I was always tempted to tell them: Sit down with a bite to eat, open your ears and your mouth, listen, and talk.

how to talk to your kids about sexI smiled to myself and turned on the car radio. I came in on the end of an interview with Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. He said kids should know about their families’ economic situation, and know that family economics are private matters and should not be discussed outside of the immediate family.

The interviewer thought letting kids know about such things would make them nervous, worried, and afraid. He explained, “If you are having financial difficulties, they already know. They will have heard you and your spouse argue about spending or heard you speak in a hush when the subject comes up. If you are a single parent, kids will have heard you talk about money with your friends or probably your parents. They’ll know, and they’ll worry.”

I have not read the book, but I will because I agree with his conclusion. I didn’t hear more than 40 or 50 seconds of the discussion, so I don’t know everything he said. Let me add a couple of things anyhow.

Not knowing is the biggest cause of worry at any age. Heck, even the stock market gets nervous when the course of the economy is unknown. If kids know things are tough they will ask for less. They will want to keep costs down. Kids, even teens, like to help. I see this as a way to help them develop empathy, and generosity. Thank you Ron for taking the time to share your common sense.

So, how do you talk to a kid about family economics, or more difficult things like the Sandy Hook shootings, 9/11, the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the other delicate issue, sex?

First, don’t take them into the study, their bedroom, or the beach and say something like, “There is something we (I) want to talk with you about.” That will scare them into wishing they had placed that rope ladder in their window.

how to talk to your kids without embarrassing themEverything worth talking about should be done at the kitchen table over a casual meal. Special talks experts recommend you have about sex are important, but they must supplement meal time forums, not replace them. Give and take conversation is infinitely better than any monolog. And if you don’t think having a talk about money, sex, or curfew with a teenager in his bedroom is a monolog, you have never talked turkey to a teen.

Talking about serious matters doesn’t begin when kids turn eighteen, or fourteen, not even ten; by then they know so much more about the subject than any parent can imagine. These discussions must begin as soon as the baby has ears, which is before birth. Sure, a two year old doesn’t have the slightest notion of what a budget is, or death, debt, taxes, sex, or any other topic. But, later he will be comfortable with the issue if he is already familiar with the terms from infancy. If he is thirteen the first time he hears you use the S word his face will flush and he’ll want to dissolve into thin air as soon as you start that one-on-one.

If some incredibly evil person “shoots-up” a shopping center, mention it at the table. “Hey, what did you hear about the awful shooting at the mall?”

An open question like that will bring a response from anyone over the age of six. Those under six will only understand after someone says something about the shooter being evil. Soon someone will want to know what evil means, which opens the topic of right and wrong, good and evil.

If someone your family knows is involved let your kids know how sorry you are. Ask them what they can do to help them. Then tell them what you will do for the victims. Sit back and listen! The discussion will soon be going full throttle; learning and value formation will have begun.

A good conversation like this can only happen if there are no distractions; no TV, cell phones, or texting. At an important time like this even background music is a distraction. Family dinner really is a sacred time. Treat it as such.

So, how do you talk to your kids about life? Start with a quiet kitchen, some comfort food, open your ears and your mouth, listen, talk, and let it happen!