Years ago when I was vegetating on the couch in my children-have-finally-gone-to-bed bliss, my son descended the stairs clutching his teddy bear, climbed into my lap and wrapped his arms tightly around my neck. I paused the television – confident in my ability to assuage his fears about creatures lurking under the bed – rubbed his back and asked, “What’s wrong, baby?”
His little body convulsed as he began sobbing. I tried to remember what he had watched on TV that afternoon, recalling a recent night when a particularly chilling episode of Scooby Doo came back to haunt us. “Can you tell Mommy what you’re afraid of?” I asked.
He continued to cry for a while, and when I finally got him calm enough to speak, he stammered out, “I’m afraid that you’re going to die. What will happen to me when you die? What will I do without you?”
Shocked, I paused, and my inability to respond did not reassure him. He began sobbing and clinging to me again, while I frantically asked myself what to do. This was one of those times when I wanted to reach for a copy of Parenting for Dummies, but I didn’t have one. I was prepared to rationalize with my son about the fact that monsters don’t exist. I was ready to flip on the lights and shine a flashlight under his bed to prove this to him. I could have confidently shown him that the noises he hears in his walls are the water pipes attached to the running dishwasher, the sound in the hallway is the cat licking herself, and the chill in the air is from the vent above his bed. I was not prepared to discuss my death with him. How can I allay his fears about something that terrifies me?
A few days before this my husband and I had a conversation about what would happen to the children if both of us died prematurely. It is an unpleasant topic, but one that needs to be addressed. As we discussed to whom we should leave our precious cargo, I cried at the thought of not being around to see my children grow up, graduate high school, and have children of their own. As I planned who would care for my children and how in my absence, I prayed that this plan would never be enacted. Now I wondered if somehow my son had overheard this conversation. Remembering his need to be comforted, I turned back to him.
“Sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy aren’t old yet. By the time we die, you’ll be a grown-up, with a wife and children of your own. You will have lots of people who love you to keep you company.”
He leaned back and looked into my eyes. “But what if you don’t die when you’re old? What if you get in a car accident and die when I’m still little?”
I winced, and once again my hesitation did not reassure my son. Sometimes I wish for less intelligent children. I hugged him tighter while wondering whether or not this was one of those times when lying was appropriate. This has been one of my biggest struggles in parenthood: should I lie to my children, and under what circumstances? I’ve lived a hard life, so I’m a realist. I want to prepare my children for the fact that life is tough, and things don’t always work out the way you plan. I want to tell them the truth. However, aren’t there times when a child-sized version of the truth is more appropriate? Does a frightened four-year-old really need a lecture about how any one of us could die at any moment?
I remember the first time my children asked me if monsters were real. Instantly my logical mind flashed to images of Ted Bundy, America’s Most Wanted, and horrifying stories of pedophiles, rapists, and kidnappers, and I thought, definitely. Monsters do exist, and they are even scarier than in cartoons. Because unlike in cartoons, these monsters aren’t easy to spot, with three eyes and two-foot claws, they look just like us. My husband knew what I was thinking, quickly scooped up the children in his arms and told them, “Of course not, there are no such things as monsters,” while giving me a don’t-even-think-about-it look over their heads. So at this moment, weeping son in my arms, flustered and tongue-tied, I did what any good mother would do: I called for reinforcements.
Once summoned and debriefed, my husband quickly sprung into action, prying our son off of me and bringing him securely into his embrace. He kissed his forehead. “Mommy isn’t going to die.” He said. “Mommy and Daddy will always be here for you, so you don’t need to worry.”
My son, desperately wanting to believe what he probably suspected was a lie, was comforted by this and eventually went back to bed. I, on the other hand, was up for hours, worrying about what my son had asked, wondering if he knew something that I didn’t. Is this a bad omen? Did he have a premonition? Am I going to die soon?
My husband came and found me sitting on the couch, gnawing on my fingernails way past my bedtime, and he knew what I was thinking. He shook his head and pulled me into his arms. “It didn’t mean anything. He’s just a kid who couldn’t fall asleep. He probably saw a Disney movie where the parents died. Don’t worry. You’re not going to die; we’re going to babysit his children one day. Everything is going to be fine.”
Even though I knew that he was lying, because he couldn’t possibly know how much time we had on this earth, I let myself believe my husband’s words, and I knew that the lie he told our son was the right choice. I told myself there were no such things as monsters, or car accidents, or cancer, or premature death, I imagined bouncing my grandchildren on my knee, and I went to sleep.
Do you feel that there are times when it is appropriate to lie to your children? What are the criteria that you use to make this decision?