I have a confession to make. I lied. About my chocolate brownies. They were chocolate and banana brownies. I was hoping to broaden the palate of my fruit-averse son, so I intentionally misled him, even though he could smell something strange.
‘Just normal brownies,’ I told him. But as soon as he bit into one, he knew the truth. My monstrous breach of trust had been exposed. He’s still reminding me about it five years later.
Like every other parent I know, I have tried to instill in my children the importance of honesty. Yet, I have certainly told my fair share of white lies in my time – to trick my boys into eating things, to protect their feelings and their innocence. (We still have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on Santa and the Tooth Fairy even though they are well past the true-believer stage.)
Maturity is the key to deciding what a child needs to know and how much of the truth they can cope with. But maturity brings with it a new dilemma.
Questions come up regularly about what I did when I was younger. When you were my age did you ever … get a detention/drink underage/smoke/try weed?
Tricky questions come in all shapes and sizes. And handling them takes careful consideration and eloquence, along with a bit of ducking and weaving.
Kids need a certain level of maturity to pose the did you ever question in the first place. They have to first recognise that their mother wasn’t always a middle-aged woman with a frown, or that dad didn’t always have grey hair – that we were teenagers at one point, in the distant past – long, long ago before Facebook and Instagram, before Playstation and Nintendo. But does that mean they are mature enough to handle the whole truth when we answer those tricky questions.
I have friends who insist that complete honesty is the best course of action – an opportunity to offer a lesson on inappropriate behaviour and its consequences. It also avoids the chance of being caught out later when the half truths and lies become jumbled up.
On the other hand, what message do we send our kids if we tell them we raised hell as a teenager, and then went on to have a successful career? And who wants to hear those terrible words – Well you did it, too, when we find out our teen has been drinking at a party. Full disclosure isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
We could rewrite our backstory to fit the occasion, but lies set a bad example, are hard to keep track of, and children have a very long memory.
I find a question is an effective way to answer an awkward enquiry about my past. Well, what do you think? is my standard reply. Usually I discover my sons aren’t actually interested in what I got up to as a teen (too much information). They are just interested in the subject in general. And on this score I am always happy to oblige and I never miss a chance to provide relevant evidence on the dangers of drinking, drugs and failing to be diligent at school!
I was in my twenties when my mother told me the truth about what happened to a pet possum that we had rescued from the side of the road, when I was six. It spent a week in my room tucked up in a cosy box before it disappeared. My mother assured me at the time that it had escaped via the chimney (remember I was six) and had gone to live with a family of other possums on a neighbour’s roof. I reluctantly accepted that it was better off with its own kind and imagined it living a happy and fulfilling life clattering across rooves every night, in search of fruit and flowers. It was 20 years later that she was retelling the story to friends. As it turned out the possum hadn’t escaped up the chimney, at all. It had been eaten by our family cat!
I was devastated. But also very pleased that my mother had fudged the facts all those years ago. I never would have been able to cope with losing the possum in those circumstances and I would have struggled to forgive the cat!
Sometimes the truth is best revealed slowly, when everyone is ready for it.
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