I’ve never been particularly good at lying. Perhaps it’s the guilt or the fear of being found out, but each time I’ve found a lie leaving my lips, I am almost immediately stricken with panic and find myself backtracking to replace it with the truth. This trait has played a major role in who I am as a parent and in the conversations I have with my boys.
As our kids grow and change so quickly, so do their questions and the answers they expect. The never-ending stream of queries and the interminable whys are challenging.
Three types of questions
On any given day, my boys ask three types of questions:
The out-of-my-area of expertise: Could a Sea Lion take care of a baby otter?
The scientific questions: How are twins made?
And the most challenging — the big thinker, existential questions: Are we all going to die one day? Do bad guys really exist? Will you ever let anything bad happen to me? Will anything bad ever happen to you?
The first type is not actually so difficult. Although I don’t know anything about sea mammal adoption, I suppose that it could happen, and they enjoy imagining the possibilities.
The scientific questions I find are the easiest, because concrete answers satisfy them thoroughly, and I’m perfectly able to explain in layman’s terms how it is that twins come to be.
The big questions though? Those are enough to make me question everything I’ve ever thought about telling the truth. Those are the questions that make me want to turn back the clock.
I want my sons to grow up knowing the truth and telling the truth. But the truth is that they are four, and I don’t want to tell them that yes, we are all going to die one day, and yes, there is evil in the world. That while I would do everything humanly possible — that I would go to the ends of the earth and back to protect them and keep them safe — I cannot promise that nothing bad will ever happen to them or to me.
I am so tempted to tell them that it’s all just pretend, that we will all live forever in a perfect world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. That’s not the truth, though.
Harmless white lies?
It’s easy to get caught up in the habit of avoiding the truth. A little white lie to prevent a tantrum or just a small fib to put a halt to the endless questions and pestering that come along with parenting.
It isn’t hard to convince yourself it’s harmless. After all, kids are so quick to believe you, so easy to convince. Then the moment comes when your child lies to you, when you can almost see the gears turning as they concoct a story that is so clearly false, that they so badly want you to believe. And you have to wonder, where did it come from?
I think of this when the hard questions come. I think of it when I am tempted to avoid the uneasiness of the truth. I think of the one or two times my kids have lied, and I think of the trust they have in me, and I can’t bring myself to do it. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and pull them closer to my heart.
Telling the truth to a four year old is not the same as telling the truth to an adult. There are layers to the truth; some that are urgent and others that can wait to be peeled back. I give them the version that will make sense to them without scaring them. I assure them of their safety and the stability of their foundation while respecting their need to know what’s real and true.
“Yes,” I tell them. “There are people in the world who do bad things…but they aren’t like the villains we see in movies and books, they aren’t lurking in dark corners, or waiting to hurt you.”
I explain that there are many more good people than bad ones, that right here, right now, they are as safe as can be. That I will always do everything in my power to keep them from harm, that there are lots of people out there to protect us, and for now, it is enough.
I take a lot of slack for telling my kids the truth, for discussing things like racism and sexism with them, for being honest about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The general feeling among the skeptics is that I’m asking too much of my kids by talking about these things, or that I’m taking away the magic and innocence of their childhood.
I don’t argue anymore because I understand where they’re coming from, and why there are different ways of doing things. The truth is, my boys’ lives are full of magic and innocence. They are happy and well-informed.
There are days that I desperately want to avoid the truth, for the sake of simplicity, for the sake of my sanity. But the truth is, I can’t avoid the reality of the truth anymore than I can avoid the reality of their growing up. And the trust they have in me, well, that’s far more important than my own comfort and sanity anyway.