One of the things that surprised me most about parenthood was what a liar it made me. Now, I’m not talking about deep dark family secrets or skeletons in the closet. Instead, I found myself engaged in small, daily fibs or half-truths told to protect my young children from realities I thought they might find upsetting or too complex to understand.
“We lock our bike so someone doesn’t mistake it for theirs and try to take it.” “That race was a tie.” “Grandma and Grandpa’s dog went to live somewhere else for a while.”
These are the kinds of garden variety lies I told daily. Once, I was in the habit of telling what I viewed as harmless white lies, however, I found it also became easier to dodge other, harder questions from my kids. Like, “What happens when we die?” or “Why do some people go to jail for a really long time?”
It dawned on me that the whole reason I was playing fast and loose with the truth was for my convenience. I didn’t have time for an extended conversation on mortality in the school drop-off line. I felt caught off guard when asked about the inner workings of the criminal justice system at the grocery store.
Still, when I realized how often I avoided having hard conversations with my kids, I knew something had to change. So I started telling the truth, and it changed everything.
My kids have a more realistic, nuanced view of the world.
I’m no longer glossing over questions about the person asking for money with a cardboard sign on the corner or the news clip about starving polar bears. Instead, I’m doing my best to explain things like income inequality, mental health, and global warming. At first, I was caught up in trying to frame everything in an age-appropriate way, but over time I’ve become less scripted and more candid.
The result is that my kids have a more authentic understanding of the world and their role in it. They can make the connection between recycling and helping the polar bears. They know how lucky they are to have a nice home and plenty to eat, and my oldest son has even begun setting aside some of his allowance to donate to a local shelter.
I’ve become more comfortable with uncertainty, and so have my kids.
As a parent, I used to feel like it was my role to have the answers. Over time, though, I’ve allowed my identity to shift so that I’m often asking the questions right along with my kids. I’ve gotten comfortable telling them that I don’t know where they were before they were born or what the number four smells like. “What do you think?” I’ll ask, and we’ll speculate together.
I love the way this has changed the dynamic of our relationship. I’m no longer responsible for all the answers. Now we’re all questioners, in it together.
I’ve become more curious.
How does the internet work? And why is the sea salty? I used to wave off these questions with quick (and probably incorrect) answers, or change the subject because I couldn’t be bothered to look for the answer. Now, though, I’ve retrained myself to stop and get curious.
“Let’s do some research!” has become one of my favorite refrains. This has not only taught my kids how to go about finding answers to their many (many!) questions but it’s helped me remember what an interesting world we live in and how much there still is to learn about it.
I’ve developed more informed opinions.
There’s nothing like your child asking you what you think about war or the death penalty to remind you how complicated certain issues are. Questions like these have forced me to consider the viewpoints I hold and whether I’m informed enough to articulate them to my kids. I usually end up seeking out new information and I’m always glad I did. We’ve developed a new level of trust
Children, even very young ones, can usually sense when you’re feeding them a line. The message kids receive when you do this is that you’re not a trusted source of information. Lying to your kids, even about small things, damages your credibility.
Say you’re trying to get an errand done, so you tell them the toy store is closed today when they ask to go. This was one of my most common moves. But then later you drive by it and they see other people inside. It’s a small thing, sure, but the seed has been planted. They’ve realized you’ve lied.
And yes, if you’re honest and tell them the toy store is open but that you don’t have time to go, you may have to weather a tantrum. But they begin to understand they can trust you not just to feed, clothe, and tuck them in at night, but also when it comes to bigger things. And while this might not seem important now, fast forward to the tween and teen years and it makes all the difference.
There have been bumps in the road.
I don’t want to suggest that my new policy of radical honesty with my kids has been smooth sailing. There was a time when unprompted, my son informed his best friend that his dog was going to die someday. (There were tears.) And the moment when he told our babysitter that I’d been to the doctor that day because there was a problem with my vagina. (I had a yeast infection.) But, for the most part, I’m happy with the results of my experiment in honesty.
I also know that my kids are still young and that their hardest questions for me are yet to come. So, I’m glad I started practicing now. I’ll do my best to be ready.