Straight Talk

How often do we lie to our children? How often, in talking to our children, do we lie to ourselves? Is it ever a good thing--for them, or for us?

I remember a very rough morning when all I wanted to do was cry or curl up and go back to bed. Part of what I had to do, however, was to care for somebody else's bitterly unhappy infant. I know that people need to cry sometimes (I certainly knew it that day). So, with what little attention I had, I was reassuring this baby. I said that she could go right ahead and cry about it, that I would keep her safe, that I was right there with her. As I heard myself saying that last part, I realized that it couldn't really be said that I was all the way there. Most of my mind, after all, was off in my own world. It felt important somehow to not lie to this little baby. So I amended what I was saying. "I'm feeling pretty sad myself and you're not getting my best attention, but I will keep you safe, and you're very welcome to cry." It was a little change, but something about it mattered to me.

Our children are so dependent on us, not only for their physical needs, but for their understanding of the world. They count on us. They trust us. And, when they're little at least, they have no other source of information. It must be very confusing to children to have the words that they hear from trusted adults not fit with the reality that they experience. If I say one thing and they feel another way, they're likely to assume that I'm right and how they feel is wrong. It's an awesome position to be in. Having been given that much power and that much trust, we can bend the truth here and there with no fear of the consequences, yet it's just that power and that trust that make it so important for us to be as truthful as we know how.

What are the lies? Many of them are well intentioned. Certainly none are malicious. We want our children to feel safe and loved, to not hurt or worry. "I'm listening now." But am I really listening, or am I just acting like a listener, with most of my mind elsewhere? "It's too cold to go outside." Is it really too cold, or is it just that I don't want to and the cold is a good excuse? "This won't hurt." Do I have any idea how much pain they will feel? Or do I know that it will hurt, but just want their cooperation? "I won't be gone long." Do I really intend to be back in a moment, or am I trying to fabricate a more comfortable reality?

Would it do them a real disservice, in any of these cases, to say the truth? Some lies have to do with buffering our beloved children from the pain of the outside world. It certainly makes sense to think about ways that we can protect them. No one, for example should be subjected to the sensationalism and violence of the TV news, and we're smart to take our worry and horror about terrible events out of their earshot. But when that impulse leads us to lie, I think we can easily get in trouble. "It was a terrible fire, but everyone is safe." It sounds good, but if they weren't safe and the children find out, how will they make sense of it? How will they hear other things that we say? Is more safety created by that lie or less?

There are times when they need our confidence, even though that confidence is hard for us to find. In times of real danger, of loss, of great uncertainly, they need to be able to count on us. This is the place, not to lie, but to stretch for a truth that may feel beyond our grasp. "Even though this situation seems hopeless and scary, and it's hard for me too, you can lean on me and on my reassurance that we're going to be okay."

I think we'll find in the end that offering our children truth and reality--with all the hope and love that we can muster--will always be the best gift.