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.