How do you balance honesty with the harsh realities of the world?

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Photo by Andrew Ciscel, used under Creative Commons license.
Before becoming a mom, I always told myself that I would be honest and straightforward with my children. I want them to be intelligent and mature, so I would speak to them in the same manner. In other words, no sugar-coating or censoring the crap out of their lives.

When they ask me questions, I will be completely honest with them. When I need to teach them right from wrong, I will use real-life examples to teach them (not just “because I said so”). And I will show them that the choices they make in life will have serious consequences and that their actions can and will affect others, as well.

I thought that’s what I wanted for all topics. Turns out, that might be a lot harder to handle than I was hoping.

My son is only 9 months old… but now that I’ve got my “Mommy Glasses” on, I’m already having second thoughts about my honesty policy. I’m starting to dread the questions he may someday be asking me about things like terminal illness, homelessness, and death. How do I teach my son about the world without traumatizing him?Deyanna

Comments on How do you balance honesty with the harsh realities of the world?

  1. I honestly think you’ll know the right things to say when the time comes. You may not want to tell your 2 1/2 year old that grandpa is going to die and is never coming back, but a 5 year old could be better equipped to handle that– and I would say it all depends on the child. Having the mindset of wanting to teach them about the world is good, but there are things they just don’t need to know yet.

  2. I like the lessons in the articles on here about how to tell kids about sex and where “babies come from:” honor the question with your honest answer, but do not offer more insight without more questions. If they want more info they’ll keep asking.

  3. My godson was raised with this policy.
    Once in a while, something sticks with him and leaves him in a bit of a funk or becomes a new “monster under the bed”–he has a fear of volcanoes, for instance.
    But for the most part, his reaction is “Oh,” followed by a moment of silent reflection. Then it’s on to the next thing. If he has explicit concerns–“Is that going to happen to me?”–he voices them right away.
    Telling the kid the truth and telling a kid the WHOLE truth are different things, I think. And I think kids are more perceptive than we give them credit for–my godson’s moms love to ask him “Well, why do you think that is?” And a lot of times, he knows.

    • “Telling the kid the truth and telling a kid the WHOLE truth are different things, I think”

      I second this. Especially with very young children, I think it’s important to only answer the questions they ask. So if your son asks “Why does that man smell funny” you can answer that particular question: “He might not have a house to live in, and so he doesn’t have anywhere to take a bath.” Then you answer any other questions that pop up after that, such as “Why doesn’t he have a house to live in?” “I’m not sure. Sometimes people don’t have enough money to have a house because they don’t have a job or get sick.” Simplicity is key…kids will keep asking if they want to know more and then you wait to answer the more complex questions until they ask. If they’re asking, they’re probably ready for some answers, even if they’re scary.

  4. best advice i’ve gotten (and used) is not to give more information than is asked for. like, seriously, even with tough questions, limit the answer to one sentence. ie: (actual convo) “mama? why did great grandpa die?” “because he was older, babe, and his body stopped working.” and that was it, for that conversation. later that day he had some very specific questions about bodies, but not about death. the next day he asked about my body and later that day we talked about his worry about our own mortality. it was all really piecemeal and done in his own pace. i feel like if i had heaped alla the info on him at that first question, he wouldn’t have processed it as well.

  5. I’m reminded of Sherlock telling two little girls that, “People don’t really go to heaven when they die. They’re taken to a special room and burned”. So, THAT may be a bit harsh, but I think when the time comes to explain things like this that you will be able to be as honest as possible. Take your time explaining and continue as you gauge their reaction.

  6. I agree with a policy of honesty but I also think it’s important to let kids know that even though bad things happen, they are able to make positive contributions to the world to change the parts of it they don’t like.

    For instance: “Yes, the polar ice caps are melting and yes it is endangering the Polar Bear’s habitat, but hey, if we want to help stop global warming we can ride our bikes to school instead of driving.”

    Sometimes it’s the feeling of helplessness that overwhelms kids, not the thing you decided to be honest about. I think those honest conversations can be really good teaching moments and can encourage them to become thoughtful and proactive people concerned about others and the state of the world around them.

    • “Sometimes it’s the feeling of helplessness that overwhelms kids, not the thing you decided to be honest about.”

      This, all the way. I had a lot of questions as a kid that I think would have been better answered instead of letting me imagine things. I mean, kids have wild imaginations and usually don’t have context to narrow down possibilities. That smelly man could be smelly because he doesn’t have a home to shower in, but maybe he’s smelly because he’s a demon in disguise. Maybe he’s a child-eating demon and the smell is the decaying flesh of his last meal stuck in his teeth.

      There are a whole lot of things that are a whole lot scarier than reality. I wish someone had told me that my great-grandpa was getting burned up and turned into ashes to live on the mantle instead of letting me agonize for years about decaying flesh and the coffin leaking when it rains and worms eating his body. Once assured that they make extra-sure that people are in fact dead before burning them, that was a whole LOT less scary.

  7. I think that children can really handle so much more than we give them credit for. I can think of so many times that I’ve thought, “I’m not sure that I should tell my kids the truth because it’s too scary-sad-awful-etc” but I’ve always been so glad that I did.

    Case in point: last year a bunny had her babies in a little hole in our backyard. Our dog found the hole and ate one of the babies, right outside the window where my 6 year old daughter was watching. I cringed and she said, “What’s Harry doing?” and I said, “He just ate a baby bunny should I not have told you that?” It was really practically all one word. She said, “that’s so sad!” and started to cry. And you know what? It was sad. But it was also such a good opportunity to talk about how he didn’t do anything wrong, because he’s a dog, and dogs are different than people. And that we would do what we could to protect the other bunnies, and hopefully they would grow up and hop away. She and I both still remember that moment, vividly, and I am so glad that I don’t remember it as a moment where I lied to her.

    It is exceptionally important to me that my children grow up to be resilient. That can’t happen unless they learn how to overcome negative things. And that can’t happen unless I let them be exposed to those negative things and help to teach them coping mechanisms.

    Trust your gut. It’ll probably want you to be honest and kind.

    • THIS! I don’t have kuds, but I was significantly older than all three of my half-sisters, and my dad’s daughters didn’t end up nearly as resilient as my mom’s daughter for this very reason. U think people get so intent on protecting their children they can have a tendency to protect them right out of life lessons. Same thing with failure. As hard as it is, it’s important to let them hurt and fail sometimes…

  8. I’ve definitely learned the importance of “not too much, too soon” and noting what they’re really asking, from reading other posts on OBM (I’d be “This”ing those comments, if I could). The other thought I have about it, is explaining a little about why difficult things happen, and/or how what seems all bad can also be seen in a positive light. Like, death can be sad for those who are left behind, but it can be a relief for someone who is in chronic pain. And it helps the earth with not getting overpopulated. And it gives us a chance to us to merge back into the earth (or whatever goodness you believe in, post death).
    Also, if the kid is old enough, you can talk about probability, when it comes to fears. I found with some kids, it helped more to give actual numbers than to just say “that probably won’t happen to you.”

  9. Other posters have already given great advice, which I won’t repeat. What I will add is that I’m a teacher, and know that by the time your child asks you the question, he/she has already been thinking about the issue and probably has a sense of whether it is one with positive or negative responses. If you are worried about “trauma” try asking him what he thinks the answer is or what he already knows about the topic. That will give you some indication about how much detail you want to include in your response.

  10. In my experience as a nanny, giving children straight up honest answers can also help them manage their own behaviour.
    If I have to take the kid to the doctors I don’t pretend we’re going somewhere else then detour once we’re in the car. I tell him, deal with the screams in the house then help him understand why we’re going and make a plan of what’s going to happen once we are there.

  11. I have a 13-month-old son and my partner and I grapple with these sorts of issues. Will we be 100% honest with him? Will we skirt around the truth?

    I think my partner and I have agreed that honesty is always the best policy, but kids don’t necessarily need to know all the gorey details. It’s okay to say that people die, without terrifying them with all the details of cancer.
    Think about learning world history as a child: you learned about Columbus and how he “discovered America.” It wasn’t until you were much older that you learned all the details of the genocidal actions that such “discoveries” led to.
    I believe that children are hungry for knowledge and are eager to understand the world around them. Denying that passion is a diservice, but some things simply are not age appropriate. There is hard and fast rule. You have to see where your child is at and then give them the details they need in that moment.

  12. I am not quite a mom yet, but it occurs to me that when a subject comes up that seems potentially traumatic, it might be a good opportunity to examine our own attitudes and see if we don’t hold onto some personal sense of fatalism or particular stigma about whatever it might be. I feel like there is almost always a positive spin to take on hard issues whether it is the progress people have made over the last few centuries (and the implication of more progress in the next few), or the ways that we can help others and improve things in our lives and communities. I hope that there is another option between expressing an image of the world as hopeless and depressing and unrealistic fantasy/gaping omissions of fact.

  13. One of the things that I do that has helped me is to always answer their questions with the question, “What do you think?” or “What do you know about it?” This gives me a starting point to either correct their information or ask them more questions to find out what is really worrying them.

    I think that you should also be prepared to say “I don’t know what I think about that right now; can we talk about it at dinner (or some other time).” Try to have a specific time that you will talk about it, so the child doesn’t feel like you’ve brushed them off and aren’t answering their questions.

  14. My daughter overheard a newscase about a shooting that happened in Oakland several months ago in which a toddler was killed. I couldn’t turn the radio off fast enough and sure enough my three-year-old’s voice came from the backseat in the form of a question, “A little boy got shot?” Make it or break it time. I simply responded with, if you have a gun, you can be good and responsible with it, or you can be bad and hurt people with it. Some people decided to be bad with their guns and hurt people. How does that make you feel? The conversation ended with us talking about how we can be good people by being responsible and how we can protect ourselves from guns. It was one of the best conversations, we didn’t over think it, and it was real and honest.

  15. This question reminded me of this OBM post:
    http://offbeatmama.com/2010/12/truth-about-santa
    (actually, looking through OBM archives, there’s lots of posts that apply – mostly relating to “The Sex Talk”!)

    When a tough question comes up, use age appropriate truths. You, knowing your kid best, will probably have a sense of how much s/he can handle. And you don’t need to give a whole dissertation on the subject at once. A simple, short, easily-understood for their age and honest answer will satisfy a kid, and give you a platform to work from the next time a related question comes up. For example – “Remember that time we talked about ________? Well, this builds on that a little because _______.”

  16. “How do I teach my son about the world without traumatizing him?”

    You can’t. As somebody once said about the Irish, “To be Irish is to know that the world will break your heart.” To be human is to learn that the world will break your heart. Of course I agree with others who have said to tell him the truth he can handle, but one of the hard lessons of parenting is that you can’t always protect your child, and realizing that is likely to break your heart.

  17. I’m a firm believer in age appropriate honesty. I placed a son with an adoptive couple almost six years ago. From the moment he was born, they’ve been honest with him that he was adopted and that’s okay (it’s one of the many reasons I chose them). From the moment he’s started asking about me (they have pictures of me in their home), they’ve told him “that’s Shelly, you grew inside her belly and she chose us to be your mom and dad.” Now that he’s getting older, he delving into “why did Shelly pick out parents for me” territory, and they’ve answered honestly “Shelly wasn’t ready to be the mom she wanted you to have.” Eventually, it will delve into my boyfriends utter fear and lack of acceptance and my idea that I’d have regrets regardless of what I chose, I wanted the path that he wouldn’t have regrets, but that’s a ways off. No six year old needs to hear about how life can get complicated and how his biological father begged me to get an abortion. I guess it goes back to the truth, but not the whole truth.

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