Whoever coined the phrase, "honesty is the best policy" likely wasn't a parent. Because when dealing with kids, it's typically not so simple. Son, Santa is watching. If you sit that close to the television, you'll go blind. Put your seatbelt on or the police are going to take Daddy to jail. Lies, all of them. And pretty harmless ones. Except for possibly that last one.
But sometimes we can't lie as parents, because we're backed into a corner where the truth is too large to shove into our pocket. Once kids establish the ability to speak, they are going to have questions about life – tons of them, and even though the answer is clear to us, it likely won't be to them.
Back in 2012, the most painful truth I ever had to reveal was sitting uncomfortably in a corner of my rattled mind. My mother, my sons' grandmother, died suddenly at the age of 59. My younger son was 10 months old at the time, and sadly didn't even notice her absence. But my older son, Antonio was a week away from turning three. My wife and I knew he'd be asking about her, and asking soon.
Then, one morning about two weeks later, I was driving Antonio to preschool, when he asked the question I assume he'd been holding onto for days.
"Daddy, is Grandma ever coming back?" My heart beat faster with each second off the clock as I desperately searched for an explanation which was neither deceitful nor harmful, one that satisfied the curiosity of a just-turned three year old. Three years later, I still have nothing satisfactory.
"No...she's not. Honey, I'm sorry...but she's not," I managed to answer. I think he knew already, anyway. "But she will always love us and we will always have pictures and videos of her. And hey, how about that pillow fight you had with her last month?" I tried my best to deflect from the sadness, despite the growing lump in my throat. He nodded solemnly and buried his face into his car seat. Shortly thereafter, my father visited the Grand Canyon on vacation. When we told Antonio, he winced as he asked us, "Is he coming back?" He used to think you had to be "really old to die." He was beginning to learn at an early age that life wasn't exactly that simple. However, almost three years after losing her, when he brings her up, he smiles.
Two weeks ago, I was sitting cross-legged on Antonio's bedroom floor, sorting through dollar bills and quarters. "Why are you taking the money from my piggy bank to the actual bank?" the almost 6-year-old Antonio inquired. After all, he was beginning to enjoy dumping it all out on the floor and swimming around in it like Scrooge McDuck. Without thinking, I answered.
"To keep it safe," I said. I grimaced, immediately wanting the words back. Because I knew what the inevitable next question was.
"Safe from...what?" he shot back, confused.
And I found myself at the honesty crossroads. Should I be open with my rapidly maturing son and expose him to the potential evils of the world, or spit out some bullshit fairytale rhetoric that'd be a blatant lie. He made the decision easy for me.
"You mean, in case there's a robber?" he asked, void of the fear I had expected to hear from such a question. I froze. My wife and I had had plenty of conversations about the upbringing of our children. How to discipline them, foods we'd allow them to eat before bed, etc. But how to answer a question that, answered truthfully might give him nightmares for a week? This wasn't covered in any pre-offspring chat. I'd simply (or not so simply) have to decide on my own exactly how much truth Antonio was able to handle.
"Yes, in case there's a robber," I finally answered, nonchalantly. At that point, I couldn't exactly say I was kidding. Trying to quell his anxiety, I added, "But I really don't think that's going to happen. What's much more likely to happen is you misplace and lose the money, and we don't want that to happen." I shot him a playful grin, and he returned it and nodded. While I think I handled it appropriately, I often wonder if I planted a seed of fear far too soon. He hasn't come running to my bed with nightmares since, so fingers crossed paranoia has been avoided.
I like to think that, by being candid and displaying the ability to explain how life works with my children, that they will be more likely to be candid with me. And that's the type of relationship I want with my kids, where we're both equally confident approaching the other with a question and receiving an honest answer. Unless, of course, that question is about the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or related to how their baby sister got into their mother's belly. I'm not quite ready to scar them that much quite yet.
How do you handle the tough questions from your kids? Deflect them? Tell the truth regardless of the consequences? Let's continue this conversation in the comments section.
Joe DeProspero is a freelance writer and blogger of all things parenting. His writing was once described as "every thought I've ever had that I didn't deem appropriate to share with others." He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons, and can be followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.