Be Honest With Your Children – Even When It Sucks

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We’ve all been there, it’s 3:00AM and the baby starts screaming.  He or she cares not that your alarm is going to go off in 3 hours and you are going to have to guzzle gallons of coffee to make it through your day.  Babies don’t care, they can’t care, because they lack the tools.  They lack empathy and they lack perspective.  They believe they are the only player….the only actor in everyone’s play (hell, I know some adults like that).  It takes years for children to realize that what they see, may not be what everyone else sees.  Years to go before they realize that everyone is the leading role in their own play.

Children operate under the “egocentric fallacy”.  Babies learn, “if I cry, they feed me”.  As they grow, this turns into, “if something bad happens, I must have caused it”.  As parents, it is our job to teach our children that they are not responsible for things that are beyond their control.  Further, children make things bigger than they actually are and they know more than you think they do.  This is a bad combination.  A white lie can turn disastrous in a child’s mind should it be left to fester.  They will believe that everything from divorce, to death, to mom’s crappy day at work was caused by them.

How can you help?  Be honest with your children, even when it sucks.  I’m not saying you need to explain things above their comprehension level.  You don’t have to explain infidelity or that their other parent was a terrible spouse.  A simple explanation of, “there are different types of love and the type you need for marriage just went away for us”.  If they get into specifics (usually from a parent who shares too much or from a conversation they overheard), just tell them that “those things happen when that love disappears.  People behave differently when they are not happy”.  It’s not an excuse, but it is a graceful way of not disclosing things that are either too old for them to understand, something that is simply none of their business, OR something that’s not true because someone is running his or her mouth.  This protects everyone.  It is often extended family that does the most gossiping and therefore, the most damage.

By the time people I knew played telephone, the version of why my ex and I split up was very freaking creative (and much more adventurous than I am), by the time it got back to me.  There were so many versions, I couldn’t keep track.  Kids hear these versions.  People are hurt, and they talk.  I promise the kids are listening.

We forget how much is going on in those little minds or how much they understand.  My girls are often processing something profound while I’m in the front seat craving chocolate, and thinking how I like the color yellow and kittens.

Just the other morning I come into the kitchen and said, “how are my two favorite people today?”  My oldest took on an astonished tone and asked, “what about daddy?”  I calmly explained that he is my friend and always will be, but my kids are my favorites and they have to be my priority.  She seemed satisfied with that answer, but let me tell you I wasn’t expecting to have that conversation at 6:30AM before my tea.  After this, why don’t you ask me where babies come from and what my net worth is?  

When I was a kid, my mom was super reserved and didn’t like talking about things that made her uncomfortable.  From telling me she didn’t know what tampons were (when asked while watching a commercial), to telling my sister that gay only meant happy when someone called her that in school.  Needless to say, she was not a huge source of information.  

Allow me to demonstrate:  I once went camping with my dad and his girlfriend.  I started my period for the first time and I thought I was dying.  I thought I was bleeding to death and since my mom had had a hysterectomy a few years prior, I assumed I had caught Ovarian Cancer, and was actually dying.  


So, his girlfriend, (this nice lady who was effectively a stranger), had to explain to me what was happening and while in a campground bathroom, I had to figure out how to use feminine products….thanks for that.  I learned very quickly to go elsewhere for information than to ask my mother.  As a result, I heard plenty of colorful explanations for everything, much of which I cannot unknow.  Someone is going to teach your children.  Do not give away that opportunity.

I am always honest with my kids and have been from day one.  I don’t need to tell them adult versions but when my kids ask how you physically make a baby, I am honest and open with them.  Even when I’m uncomfortable, they deserve to know what’s going on.  I don’t have this kid:

Kindergarten Cop

because no one wants the weird kid (don’t lie, everyone loved Kindergarten Cop).  But still, they know the basics and therefore, they don’t run around asking other people.  So be honest with your kids, even when it sucks.

Parents Are People And They Have Feelings Too

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No one is happy all the time and that’s OK.  My children and yours need to know you have feelings.  They also need to learn the correct responses to events and their associated emotions.

I’m sad that people get sick.  I’m sad that in the US people owned people and it still happens elsewhere.  That working in criminal defense taught me that minorities are not treated the same, or fairly, and we pretend it doesn’t happen.  That women make less than men even if they do equal and/or superior work.  That rich white men say things like, “Those 99% people need to go get jobs.  I hate hippies”, which then begs the question, does he know what “we are the 99%” means or what a hippie even is?  I’m sad that animals are put down in astounding numbers because we cannot control the population and there is no other way to handle it other than to make us all “cat people”.

It is our job to protect our children and let them be children.  But it is also our job to teach them that things are not fair.  It’s not fair and it’s OK to be sad and angry about it.  It’s what we DO about it that matters.  Anger is the easiest emotion to portray.  Teach them the rest of them.  Not everything should elicit an angry response any more than always pretending to be happy and playing a “Stepford wife”, is an accurate portrayal.  If you are pretending to be happy all the time, you are doing your child a disservice.  Children need to learn that how they feel is acceptable and normal.

Your children need to know that their actions can also affect your feelings.  If they say something insensitive or hurtful, explain the following things:

  1. Why it was inappropriate
  2. How it made you feel
  3. What they should have said instead

Number three is the most important.  Always teach your kids an alternative behavior.  Simply saying “no”, does not teach them how to conduct themselves in the future.

What does this mean for you?  You need to talk to your children.  Explain how you feel and why.  You don’t need to discuss all the big world issues but if you’re having a rough day, tell them.  Teach them the full range of emotions above and beyond happiness and anger.  Teach them what feelings are appropriate for which circumstances.  And most of all, teach them that parents are people, and therefore, they have feelings too.