A verboten topic

conversation“So, do you have kids?”

Have you ever asked someone this question? Such a seemingly innocuous question. But, it’s actually a very loaded, potentially painful topic.

A few days ago I received this email from a newsletter reader.

I am not physically able to have children. The extreme heartache has
been something I cannot deal with in privacy when it’s obvious I have
no children and people delve into the topic with me beyond the usual
and natural question, “Do you have children?” When I say no, I am
probed on a regular basis by such responses as this: “You mean not yet?”;
“You don’t want children?”; “Why don’t you adopt?”; “If you adopt you will
probably get pregnant,” etc. Unfortunately, I have come to the point of
saying to people, “It’s a personal thing I don’t care to talk about.”
I can tell that makes people uncomfortable but I don’t know how to
protect myself from the onslaught of mainly female responses that only
cause me further pain.

What if I had lost a child? Would I be forced to tell every questioner
of that agony? And yet, I feel like I have lost a child. I will never
meet the child or children my soul has longed for much of my life.


You probably know you shouldn’t discuss religion, politics and money with people you don’t know, even people you do know. But, you may not know that asking about kids is also a topic to be avoided. It’s obvious how painful the question is to Rachel. It’s even worse that people continue asking her questions about it, causing her great anguish and discomfort.

My husband and I made a choice not to have kids. We both love children but just didn’t feel it was a lifestyle we wanted to pursue.  When people ask me if I have kids I always feel uncomfortable answering because I can sense they wonder why I don’t. And, I also feel like I have to say something that shows I don’t dislike these little people. My usual response is, “No, but we have lots of nieces and nephews,” and then there is often an awkward response.

Rachel began her email to me by writing, “I recall you saying that etiquette is not about being proper so much as avoiding making others uncomfortable.” And she is right. Being kind and respectful of others trumps knowing which fork to use.  So, please add the “Do you have kids” question to your list of verboten conversation topics so that you don’t make others uncomfortable.  It’s the polite thing to do.

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Beth Buelow on January 23, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    Arden, thanks for addressing this important point. I, like you, have chosen not to have children. I occasionally get the question, and when I do, I say, “No, I have two furbabies (or I might say “four-legged children”), Lucy and Ginger.” That usually leads the conversation to pets and away from further probing.

    I wonder if the question itself is the problem, or if it’s more people’s rude assumptions and queries that cause the pain and awkwardness. I agree that it’s a personal question that probably shouldn’t be asked in professional circumstances, but it seems a natural point of curiosity if you meet someone at church or other social function and the conversation turns more personal. I think there are two angles to consider: the person being asked has to have developed some level of comfort with saying “no” without needing to explain or defend, and the person asking has to respect the answer without further probing, judgment, or commentary.

    I should say this is my personal perspective; I might feel very differently if I shared Rachel’s experience. My feeling is that the question is often asked innocently and with good intentions; it’s the inappropriate response to a “no” that causes the problem. I suppose in the end, it’s best to avoid the question altogether, as you suggest :-). I really appreciate the post, Arden… it made me think!

  2. Arden Clise on January 24, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    HI Beth,

    Thanks for your comment and thoughts. It does seem like it should be an acceptable question to ask, and is usually just a way for people to make conversation. But, I’ve heard from a few women who haven’t been able to have children that it’s an awkward question at best, a painful one at worst. I also talked to a colleague, who does have kids, who asked another woman the kid question and was given the sad story about how the woman wasn’t able to have children. My colleague said it was very uncomfortable. For those reasons, it’s really best to avoid the question all together.

    I think it’s somewhat easier for we childless-by-choice women to answer the question because we aren’t pained by the question and we can say something like, “no, but i have pets.” But, for women who aren’t childless by choice I would imagine knowing what to say is challenging. They could say something like, “no, but i have two dogs.” But, if they would much rather have kids over dogs or nieces and nephews I’m sure it would feel like an empty answer.

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