Every day, I say approximately ten thousand things to my children. Most of them are variations of “PLEASE bring the volume down,” “Where is the dadgum tape?” and “Stop gaping at it and get a towel.” But a few of the things I say are actually helpful. Here they are, the ten things we tell our children that make them stronger.
1. The truth, even when it’s brutal. When Eli’s pig was dying in his arms on the way to the vet, he asked me whether I thought her chance of survival was about 50/50. I took a deep breath and told him the truth: The vet tech said the odds were low that they could do anything for such a young pig. I braced myself for a bout of crying. Instead, he said: “I’m glad to know that, so I know to get ready to say goodbye, instead of being surprised.”
2. The truth, even when it’s scary. We live in a world full of dangers–predators and car accidents, drownings and disease. Pretending we don’t, or pretending that the car seat will prevent all possibility of injury or that a lock on the door will absolutely prevent burglars doesn’t make children feel safer, especially when they learn the truth and no longer know who they can trust. The truth prepares them to be smart in the world and to be resilient when bad things happen–which they do at least occasionally in everybody’s life. Life is scary that way.
3. The truth, even when it’s about sex. One in three children will be sexually abused. Hiding the truth about our bodies does not help our children, and it doesn’t guarantee their “innocence”–quite the contrary. All it guarantees is that they’ll get their information somewhere else. Children empowered with knowledge can often protect themselves from, and are more resilient in the face of, abuse. Children who know it’s safe to talk to Mom & Dad about sex and bodies are simply safer. Bonus: As they grow, they have the tools and knowledge to make smart decisions for themselves about their emerging sexuality. If you’re not sure where to start, check out:
4. The truth, even when it’s complex. When Eli asked me why a friend and I were complaining about the recent government shut-down, I told him. It was a long and complex discussion that went into detail regarding the branches of government, the economics of government, history, politics, and human nature. I suspect he understood only pieces of it. I suspect he understood more of it than I give him credit for. Children thrive from being bathed in language and concepts above their understanding, rather than only told what the adults around them think they’ll understand. They appreciate the respect implied in being spoken to this way.
5. The truth, even when we’re not sure what the truth is. I really don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know who God is, exactly, or how God works or even, for 100%, whether God is. I don’t know why people fight wars, I don’t know whether my children will live to a ripe old age, and, especially, more than anything else, I don’t know what we’re having for lunch. My children ask these questions and I could make something up, read an answer from a book, or tell them comforting stories to reassure them that everything’s simple and knowable. I don’t, though–they’re amazing at seeing right through me on this. I do read answers from books and tell them comforting theories, and I tell them what I believe to be true… and I also tell them the rest of the truth: I don’t have all the answers. You have to find the important things out for yourself.
6. The truth, even when we don’t understand it. Every time a school shooting makes the news, a hundred blog entries pop up asking and answering the question: What do we tell our children? Mostly, we don’t tell our children much because they don’t really watch the news and death and violence is hardly news to us anyway. But if they hear about it anyway and ask, no big deal: We tell them the truth. We answer their questions. Then we remind them that although this made the news, it’s incredibly incredibly rare and they’re much more likely to die in a car accident than a school shooting. They are oddly comforted by this. I tell them about mental illness, and about hatred, and I tell them I don’t know, I don’t understand, because that’s the truth.
7. The truth, even when it hurts. Sometimes, the truth makes me cry. When I talk about sweet Jill not getting to see her precious girls grow up. When a pet dies. When a friend is in pain. I let the tears come, and I answer their questions about why I’m sad. Children appreciate knowing that grown-ups hurt sometimes too. Then they get to watch us get through it, and learn how to grieve and how to heal.
8. The truth, even when it’s about money. We don’t hide from our kids when things are rough–they’re perceptive, they know when there’s tension under the surface, and it scares them. We just come right on out and put that scary money thing on the table and look at it together, and then it stops holding so much power. The children also know when things are good financially, when I land a new client, how much I make, and they know where the emergency cash is stashed and how much our mortgage is and just how much those lights left burning in the basement night and day no-matter-how-many-times-I-tell-you-to-turn-them-off cost. How else will they understand their own financial lives, if they’ve never seen us managing ours?
9. The truth, even when it’s about them. There’s a tribe in Africa where, when a mother realizes she is with child, she goes to a quiet place to listen for the song of that child. And when she knows the child’s song, she goes back to her village and teaches it to all the people who will know that child, so that they can sing it while she is giving birth. They will sing the child’s song to her as she grows up, when she is hurt, when she misbehaves, when she is married, at every significant event in the child’s life. And when that child’s time comes to leave this world, the last thing she will hear is her loved ones gathered around singing her song to send her on her way. We do our children no favors by pretending that they are a blank slate just waiting to be filled with whatever they or we choose. Every child possesses a once-in-the-history-of-the-universe combination of traits and strengths and struggles and passions that are their unique gift to the world. It’s our job to discover these things, and to sing them their song, and to sing it truthfully so that by the time they are adults, they know who they are and they know that their unique and wonderful self, with all their strengths and all their weaknesses, is worthy of the time they have here on this crazy earth.
10. The truth, all the time always, even when. When Monty was a toddler, we were walking upstairs from our apartment when he spotted an interesting electrical outlet: Fun! He toddled toward it and began playing with the plastic cover. I said, “Monty, that can hurt you.” He stopped, looked one more time, and came back to me. A neighbor happened to be walking by right at that moment, and remarked that he was obedient. No, I said, he just trusts me. Why? Because I always tell the truth, and he knows it. If I say it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous. As he’s entering into the last quarter of his 12th year, I know that he knows he can always ask and I will always tell. About alcohol, about driving, about girls, about lunch.
Wait, not about lunch. He knows perfectly well that “in a few minutes” really means “get it yourself.” Well, I didn’t say I was perfect. And that’s the truth.
What are the things you tell your children that make them stronger? Write about it and post a link–or leave your list in the comments section.