When my daughter was newly born, I promised myself that I would never lie to her. About anything. Of course a general lofty promise is one thing, but it’s quite another to apply it down in the muddy minefields of Parenting.
Over time I developed some rules of thumb that helped me with the concrete business of answering my daughter’s questions in ways that were truthful, but still respected where she was at in her developmental journey.
(Note: I am not a child psychologist. I’m just a father who survived the child-rearing journey! My daughter is now full-grown and thriving.)
If they’re old enough to ask a question, they’re old enough for an answer.
A major part of parenting is being proactive about teaching your child the general ways of the world. School is a big part of that, but also things like how to tie your shoes, and how to use a toilet. That list is endless. But the impossible questions in Life — the questions adults still struggle with their entire lives — are a lot harder. Life. Death. Sex. Loss.
Sometimes these Big Life Questions randomly present themselves as the child is growing up. A pet dies — that’s an opportunity for an initial discussion of Death, for example. Guiding them through the process of losing their pet hamster, and the grief that goes with that, will help prepare them for the inevitable in life.
Meanwhile, other questions arise in their minds organically and take us by surprise: “Daddy, where do babies come from?”
And, in its own way, Santa Claus can be a Big Life Question. Because, in a way, “Santa Claus” could be understood as the entire adult world conspiring in a Big Lie. That’s potentially devastating.
Over time I evolved three guidelines that served me well…
You don’t have to give an exhaustive answer.
It really helped when I realized that I don’t have to give a complete answer — give them a partial answer that addresses their question, and then stop. This is not depriving them, it’s being careful not to overwhelm them! They can only absorb so much — give them time to chew on it. That could be a few minutes or a few years. When they’re ready for more, they’ll ask another question!
Scale the answer to where they are.
This principle is pretty close to “You don’t have to give an exhaustive answer,” but it just emphasizes the idea that we honor where they are in their journey. They’re already learning so much every day — they’re little knowledge sponges just soaking up everything. There’s nothing to be gained by overwhelming them or confusing them.
A practical example: “Where do babies come from?”
At age four or so, I got the question “Where do babies come from?” I replied: “Well, the baby grows in the mommy’s tummy, and when it’s ready to come out the mommy goes to the hospital where the doctors help.” That was enough.
Days later we were at the grocery store and I pointed out a very pregnant woman — “Look, a baby is growing in her tummy!” At which point my daughter walked right up to the lady and asked about it! Oops! Mommy-to-be took it in stride with a big grin and had a nice moment with my daughter. Later, as my daughter grew older and wanted to know more, I would elaborate more. By the time she was a teenager she had the whole story.
A major virtue of this approach is that the topic of Sex was never out of bounds. Or any other topic. Sex is just a fact of Life, it’s how every single one of us got here! When they’re only four, however, they have no way of comprehending how emotionally and ethically complicated Sex can be. But that can wait for later when they’re more emotionally mature. The question at hand was simply, “Where do babies come from,” and my answer was enough for her for several years.
A core principle here is that no question is off limits, that she can ask about anything and get an answer. There were occasions when I couldn’t answer her question — for example, one where I’d have to betray a confidence. But respectfully declining to answer (and explaining why) is very different from lying.
“Is there really a Santa Claus?”
Santa Claus is of course a huge part of most children’s holiday experience. And of course it’s fun for parents to leave snacks for Santa on Christmas Eve — the whole holiday Santa game.
When asked, “Is there really a Santa Claus,” adults frequently answer something like: “There’s no such thing as Santa.” In essence, what they’re saying to the child is that the entire adult world has been lying to them for years about something terribly important to them.
So I think “There is no Santa” is a terrible answer. And I have, methinks, a better one.
Inevitably the day came: “Daddy, is there really a Santa Claus?” I replied: “You like pretending, right? It’s fun, isn’t it? Even grownups like to pretend — so we all pretend there’s a Santa Claus, because it’s fun! Let’s keep pretending together!”
With this answer, it’s not about adults lying to her for years. Instead, it’s about her having grown enough to be included in the grand pretend game that grownups play too. (And little children are really into playing ‘pretend’.) Explaining that it’s a big Santa Pretend Game is saying to my daughter that she’s a ‘big girl’ now, and has graduated to being included in the grown-up game of Santa. Because that’s what it really is, isn’t it? And so, instead of feeling lied to, my daughter felt welcomed to the grown-up community, in a very positive, welcoming way. Win!
I firmly believe that this policy of never lying to her paid off dramatically. As a teenager she came down with aplastic anemia — her blood platelets, white and red cell levels plummeted. At one point her blood counts were dreadfully low, in the hospital with multiple blood transfusions a day to keep her alive. Not fully conscious she asked me: “Am I going to die?” I choked up of course, but regaining my composure I held her hand and answered: “It’s possible, but I don’t think so.” She seemed to relax with that and went back to sleep. I honestly believe, with a “father’s intuition,” that Dad’s confidence that she would be OK made a real difference. “Dad thinks I’ll be OK, and he’s never lied to me.” And, sure enough, her blood counts started rising after that.
We don’t need to lie to our children about Santa Claus, or anything else! Instead stick to answering the question at hand, at a level and length they can manage.
The payoff is that they will trust us to be honest when it Really Matters.