The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Thursday, March 09, 2006


I always swore that I was not going to be the kind of mother who sugar coats things. I was going to speak openly and honestly to my children about life, the world and how we all fit into it all the time. I would always answer questions, provide age-appropriate information and raise informed children. I would speak the truth.

Open. Honest. All the time. Always. The truth. It sure sounded good. But like most of those things I promised myself before I had any idea what being a parent was actually going to be like, it was a little too absolute a plan, without any wiggle room left for the realities of daily existence. I'm still following that basic blueprint for parenting. Kind of. But as time goes by, well, I'm starting to see the value in the wiggle.

Julia's in a fearful stage right now, and a lot of familiar children's stories and shows are freaking her out at the moment. As her awareness of the world around her increases, so does her concern for characters and their well being. Paul recently told her an abbreviated version of Hansel and Gretel that had her up crying at 4 a.m. because "the children were lost and it was getting dark." I know that this is a terribly age-appropriate phase and despite the fact that it's a little bit inconvenient, all of this consciousness-raising strikes me as a good thing overall. So we're just trying to ride out the stage and get through the fears as best we can. We talk about what's scary when fears present themselves, but we also do a fair amount of picking and choosing material that we hope won't lead us down that road in the first place.

The other night, it was my turn to tell Julia a bedtime story. The Hansel and Gretel situation was still fresh in my mind, so I picked a fable that I knew she had heard before. As I got further and further into the story of the boy who cried wolf, however, I realized that I'd misjudged my audience. Julia's eyes were getting wider and wider as she contemplated the idea of a little boy encountering a wolf. I was treading on dangerous ground.

Mindful of her fears, I offered up a slightly sanitized ending, in which the wolf "took the boy away." It seemed an easy enough compromise. But as I leaned in to kiss Julia good night, I saw that it hadn't been enough. "What happened to the little boy after the wolf took him away?" she asked me, her eyes wide and worried.

I sat there for a moment, weighing my options. Honesty is always the best policy, I told myself as I remembered my long-ago vow to be open with my kids and teach them what's what. Life isn't always pretty. My now-experienced parental side had a ready response. Neither is waking up at 4 a.m. to comfort a kid who's got nightmares. I wanted to do the right thing, of course. But which right thing? Julia was waiting anxiously for an answer, the covers pulled up to her chin. I sighed and brushed her hair back off her face. And then I gave the lamest answer ever. "They played for a while and then the wolf sent the little boy home," I told her.

Julia eyed me a little suspiciously for a moment and the sighed with relief. "Oh, OK then," she replied. "Good night." I kissed her and guiltily left the room. The former purist in me was horrified at myself. What the hell kind of an answer was that? If it's a slippery slope, this fibbing to children thing, I thought to myself, then pretty soon I'm going to find myself teaching her about the stork or pretending that people of all races and creeds live together in perfect harmony. What ever happened to my open, honest parenting plan? For a second there, I was tempted to go back into Julia's room and confess my whole sordid attempt at deception. "Wolves eat little boys," I wanted to tell her. "But don't worry. I'll never let one eat you." Yes, that would have been the right way to answer her question. That's what a good parent would have done. That's what the parent I intended to be would have done.

That urge passed pretty damn fast. Maybe I'd missed my moment, but I wasn't about to ruin my kid's night just to calm my own conscience. I went and confessed my sins to Paul instead and we both had a good giggle at the mental image of the wolf and the little boy playing dominoes until his mother called him home for dinner. It was, we decided, a highly entertaining rewrite. And so while I was in the practice of rewriting things, I mentally rewrote my parenting vocabulary as well, completely eliminating the words always and all the time. If two lost kids in a forest kept Julia up all night, I can only imagine what a wolf consuming a small child would have done to her. Honesty just wasn't the best policy in this case after all.

A little bit of wiggle room, I'm now realizing, is a very good thing to have in your parenting toolbelt. Yes, I still believe that honesty is almost always the way to go, of course. But not always. No one woke up with nightmares after my wolf story. For that night at least, we all lived happily ever after. And if bedtime isn't the time for a fairy tale ending like that, well then I don't know what is. I'm learning. And so are my kids, even if they're not learning things the way I initially expected or planned.


At 5:58 PM, Blogger Steph said...

Wiggle room is a very good thing, indeed. I was almost going to be a little freaked out when I started reading your post, thinking that you might have encountered the same question I did today, "Mommy, how did J get into your tummy?"

Back to what you were saying, we're in the same fearful stage. When watching some movies, or reading familiar books, M will sometimes be so far into my lap that I can't move. I liked your re-write and someday when Julia reads your blog, she'll probably get a kick out of it too!

At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Gretchen said...

Oh boy. We have been dealing with this sort of thing a lot because of Erika's godmother's death. Sam asks a LOT of questions and is obviously worried about his own death, because we told him that everyone dies eventually. Finally we told him that everyone has an angel inside them, and when you die, the angel inside you is set free and goes up to live in heaven, so you don't REALLY die. He is still a little freaked out. This stuff is TOUGH.

At 7:04 PM, Anonymous chelle said...

I totally agree, most of the time honesty is the best policy, however there are times and situations you have to protect your kids. Go with your instincts!

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Nicole said...

I think you did the right thing. You could ask yourself what the purpose of telling her the whole truth would have been right at that moment. I try to be very open with my kids and I think I'm doing pretty good with "private areas" and the such. But, death seems so much more difficult to me.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger Rosemary said...

Hey, you can always tell Julia you know a woman who lives with wolves and that they are very sweet creatures and just got a bad rap somewhere along the line. For the most part, wolves are quite timid, especially of people. In the wild, a large part of their diet is rodents -- definitely not little children. And the biggest thing you have to worry about with wolves is to not touch them unless they say you can and not to scare them with loud noises and sudden movements. They also very much dislike people who yell -- they will ask you to let them out of the house if you are having a fight with another person.

For story books, you might want to try "The True Story of the Big Bad Wolf", a revisionist view of the 3 little pigs story. It's funny as all git out and completely changed my daughter's idea of who was the bad guy in that story. :-)

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Yes - honesty and truth. And yes - wiggle room. Heck, even *I* like a little wiggle room now and then. Sugar coating is sweeter, if nothing else. There's plenty of time for "real life" later. Sleep tight, Julia.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger jordan said...

i agree with the other comments here. i think you did the right thing. my mom tried to teach us about fiction vs. reality after my dad died so that we could enjoy stories again. no such luck. i distinctly remember watching psycho as a 9 year old. i still get freaked out in the shower. her intentions were good but the application was all wrong.

ironically, i work with fictional characters, sometimes dying ones, all the time. i still can't sleep after a slasher film for fear that a crazy masked man with a giant weapon will kill me in my sleep. i guess i never left the phase that julia is in now. a little sugar coating would have helped me a lot.

now dan won't let me watch scary movies. he's doing the right thing too.


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