Thursday, March 19, 2009

WHEN IS IT OK TO LIE TO YOUR KIDS?

"Do you lie to your kids?" ask the Momversation site this week.

Well, I think we should first take off the table from the get-go the "little white lies" we tell to spare someone's feelings -- like "you always look beautiful" or "of course I can tell that chicken scratch is a loving portrait of our family" or "no, the little bits of green in there are herbs, not spinach, now just eat your pot pie please".

I think we all have versions of the little white lie that we use in our daily lives, some maybe more than others, some maybe not so little, but for the most part, they can't really be considered lies as much as they are buffers to the truth.

Potato, potahto, I know, but there you go.

The rest of the lies we allow ourselves to tell our children seem to me to fall into 3 big buckets.

1) To avoid conversations that make US uncomfortable (sad, awkward, hurtful) -- maybe about death, divorce, transvestite hookers, for instance.

Being a lesbian latina couple born and bred into fairly traditional Mexican Catholic families, we made a concerted decision very early on to not lie to our kids about real-life situations. Too much of our own lives were affected so negatively by "well-intentioned" lies in the past for us to justify the hypocrisy and perpetuate unnecessary pain. It's not always been easy, for certain. And we have to remind each other often that the truth is really okay to say out loud. But children are surprisingly accepting of the world as it is, of people as they are, because truly they don't come with those predefined social filters built in. Those are inherited.

Depending on their age and understanding of the concept, though, we will provide more or less detail about a certain topic. Do they need to understand what HIV and AIDS are? Sure. It's so prevalent in our society today that they are bound to hear about it from one medium or another, from a child at school, or because they know someone or are someone who is infected. But do they need to know what sharing drug needles and having unprotected sex actually entails? God, no. At least, not yet. They're only 6. But we will have to be ready. Which leads me to #2.

2) To protect our children from things they're just not ready for developmentally. This one's a little harder to judge, I think, because very often parents will put lies that actually belong in bucket #1 into bucket #2, at which point I do think it's doing more harm than good because now the parents are actually lying to themselves, too.

That our children's moms have chosen to spend their lives together as a family has nothing to do with sex. Therefore, explaining homosexuality to children is no different than responding to, "Mom, why is Karl's skin so much darker than mine?" Because that's the way they were born, and this is the way I was born, and everyone's different, and that's what makes the world such an amazing place.

And finally...

3) To perpetuate fairy tales we may recall from our own childhood that hold fond memories or warm places in our hearts still. I think Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny all kind of fall into this one. I don't think it's such a big deal either. I do agree with fostering children's imaginations (to a point). Completely disagreed, for instance, when the kids wanted to build a leprechaun trap this week so that they could take his gold. But not because I didn't think it was ok for them to believe in little green men who bring luck and good fortune to the world -- just don't really condone the whole theft and abduction scheme.

But I also agree with the method some moms have alluded to of turning it back around on the children, so that they do determine on their own when it no longer makes sense for them to believe in these imaginary characters. Having been in their shoes, I think most of us can agree that at some point, we do grow out of it. But storytelling and the employment of metaphors and analogies to respond to questions about why the sky is blue, where rainbows come from, how the seasons change, why the wind blows, how the stars got into the sky, or any other infinite number of "why, why, whys" has been a part of most cultures since the beginning of time. They're traditions, customs, rituals. And while I'll concede that they're not always necessarily educational, they're certainly not hurtful. I would insist, however, that they could be more informational, and that we as parents could probably do a better job of providing more background information about the origin of "retail holidays" so that they're not stripped entirely of their true meaning and commercialized just for the sake of commercialization (ala "Festivus" from Seinfeld).

Cultural variations of these myths and fairy tales exist all over the world. Maybe it would be a fun family project to research the way another culture celebrates or recognizes a particular holiday and incorporate some of those customs into our own to create a holiday that isn't just a distant echo of something real, but something new and real that we've created together?

So, lying to our kids? Eh, to each his own, I guess. All I know is I'm not gonna be the one to tell them their birthday wish isn't gonna come true this year. And I'm okay with that.

What do you think?

4 comments:

Seth Simonds said...

The second part of part 2...how do you go about explaining "where babies come from?". I really like the simplicity of "this is the way I was born" but doesn't that make other explanations more complicated? I'm impressed with how gracefully you leap into such complexity!

I was raised without any of the "perpetuated fairy tales" like the easter bunny, santa claus, tooth fairy, etc, but I knew about many fairy tails through my reading. My parents encouraged all their kids to love reading and, somehow, I think I was able to gain the same ability to accept impossible concepts as the kids looking for money under their pillows.

Best to you!

SAIA AND CHAGO said...

Oh, for sure. We also have an added layer of complexity to "where do babies come from?" because we chose alternative insemination from an anonymous donor. And, yes, the kids are able (in their limited kindergartener vocabulary) to explain what that means.

But, by far, the coolest thing about having children is how they make you take stock -- of who you are, of who you claim to be, of whether you walk the walk and talk the talk, of your level of integrity, and of the depth of your character. Kids keep you in check. And everyone could use a little of that.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Seth. Come on back anytime. :)

Amy Rubin said...

Saia and Chago, My first visit to your blog, thanks to Seth's twitter recommendation.

I have found the simple answer, geared to the intellectual capacity of the child, to be the best path through the most complex discussions. Also, answering just the question that the child asks. No long tangents, please! Of course, as they get older, the questions get harder!

My kids have moved on to asking about God's presence in life, what happens now that Grandmom died, why cruelty exists and other concepts middle and high schoolers can grasp. Now my answers are more abstract, prefaced with "I believe..."

Parenting is the toughest job. There is no moral certitude. Mistakes are plentiful. Thankfully so is love.

Thank you for your thoughtful post.

SAIA AND CHAGO said...

Amy, really excellent comment! And loved that your simple, straightforward, and eloquent response totally models your recommendation. :)

Agree 100%.

Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. Hope to see you around here again soon. :)