In a previous life, I was a teen.
It’s hard to admit. But it’s the truth.
I’ve told my daughters this. Me being a teen and all. Just like them.
And typical teens that they are? . . .
They refuse to believe me. As if I am lying.
“When have I ever lied to you?” I ask.
Then I quickly shut up, because the ice under my feet is feeling mighty thin and I definitely just heard it cracking.
Does a willful act of fictional omission count as a lie – even with the best of parenting intentions? What if that book / movie / video is just not appropriate – yet?
Does intentional exaggeration count? Is it a lie to make something sound more gorgeous, funny, outrageous, and awesome just to get your teens to come along or watch or listen – to be part of the family?
Does pain count? Is it a lie to tell them how I can’t possibly weed, clean, do the litter pans, or any of their usual chores because my back hurts (when it does) even if I (think I) could put up with more pain and do it all myself to save my sanity (if not my back)?
What about generational comparisons (e.g. “When I was your age . . . ”) that aren't really lies? I mean . . . do I really always have to acknowledge that times have changed – a lot?
Does biding my time count? Is it a lie to (temporarily) avoid sharing certain family truths or global terrors when I know that they are not yet ready to understand or cope with the reality of the moment? (Especially if I’m still trying to understand that reality myself.)
Parenting, my girls (un?)intentionally remind me, is full of lies – not alternative facts (they are not that gullible) – just outright lies with a variety of styles, reasons, and excuses.
For examples . . .
It turns out, for instance, that The Sound of Music didn’t end with the kids singing “Good Night” in front of that magnificent stairwell. The truth was my little girls weren’t ready for a war movie until they were older. Waiting meant less internalized fears that they could never find words for and that the discussions that then followed involved deeper contemplation because they were ready, more mature. We waited out a lot of movies. Meaning? I monitored their eye candy – their books, their movies, their video games. Mean moms do that because we love our children enough to know when they are ready to consume material without being traumatized. That was – that is – my job. I shield them from the ugly until they are ready to handle the un-niceties and truths of life. And then we talk. And talk. All questions accepted. Did I call other parents to ask what movies they’d be watching? Yes, yes, I did. And every single parent expressed sincere gratitude as if I may have given them courage to do the same, as if I was starting a Parents Who Care What Their Kids See movement.
Do I always get it right? No, of course not. But, I figure explaining the few misses is still better than my girls being inundated with images and language and realities and fantasies beyond their years, and sometimes, frankly, beyond mine.
Those were the lies of intentional temporary fictional omission. They didn’t miss it entirely. They just waited.
And my girls actually thanked me later.
Recently my older daughter was studying abroad. She sent me this text: “Thank you for all those years you made us look out the window on long drives. The US medians were not beautiful, Mom. But, I get it now. Because I am now traveling through the Swiss Alps and I’m the only one in my class looking out the window and not continuously down at a tech screen. You rock, Mom.” (So as not to further divert her eyes, my reply was short: “I love you, too. ENJOY!”)
All those lies I told about how beautiful the scenery was or how interesting it might be were intended to keep them aware of and involved in their surroundings. We played the Alphabet Game with billboards. (Not, by the way, recommended for new readers in cities where billboards can advertise more . . . um . . . adult material.) We played the License Game, the Count the Animals Game . . . And, we listened to audio books, cracked up together, and waiting in driveways and parking lots just to finish a chapter.
No one was allowed to solo plug in. No one had their own devices. We didn’t have a van with a DVD player. Instead we had windows to movies happening if we made up the stories about the people we saw. The buildings. The fields. The animals – alive and roadkill. And yes, sometimes my kids got bored. And, sometimes they would push each other’s buttons and that, of course, then pushed mine.
I was that mean mom who lied about how there is more to see – when I had no idea what we would see next and maybe it would look like nothing. To this day, I still strongly believe that nothing is rarely really nothing. When the girls poked and pestered each other, I had the “If-You-Have-Nothing-Nice-to-Say-Then-Say-Nothing-At-All” rule. Ah, silence is a beautiful sound. So is the sound of tired children sleeping.
But the best part of my daughter’s incoming quick text was the, “You rock, Mom” just as she was looking at rocks and mountains and parts of a country that she would never experience except in those very moments with her eyes looking up and out.
I admit here that I told the lies of intentional exaggeration as we creatively filled time and space without relying on apps and movies.
And they thanked me later.
In fact, I “rock”. (Hey, did you know that you can see some really cool rocks embedded in a cliff face on US 80 in Northwestern Pennsylvania? Keep your eyes open; you’ll see. Where else?)
Some lies are about the intensity of pain or are generational – handed down so many times in so many variations. These are the coaxing lies to get our kids to cook, learn the “rules” of laundry, clean (better), take responsibility for a sibling or a pet or . . . themselves. Sometimes, these are the truths that sound like lies of all the chores we had growing up versus what they have now.
And sometimes they are just the situational family facts. Like being a single mom. Like being a mom who had serious lengthy illnesses and numerous injuries. But it was not entirely true that I could not manage to do more of their chores. I just knew I had to pull that ace card. For their sake as well as mine, I had to say “No, this job is yours and the consequences for not doing it are yours as well.”
They registered a lot of complaints. Hell, I was Head of the damn Complaint Department. And they had their share of consequences which we negotiated even as I was Head of the damn Consequences Department as well.
But the end result was I’m healthier.
And this recent note: “Thanks, Mom. I’m traveling again and I am the only one in my group who knows how to go food shopping (and can compare prices properly). I can do my laundry, get money from a bank, understand how to keep it balanced, read maps, cook and eat on my own (or with others IF I want), AND actually – as in really – clean up after myself. You wouldn’t believe what kids don’t know, Mom.”
"Why, yes, yes, I would," I say only to myself. "I’m thrilled you are independent and yet still call home. I am tickled that you ask for recipes. I am so excited that you don’t like the smell of dirty litter pans anymore and will react of your own free will and that you understand the impact of a vacuum and enjoy the satisfaction of a scrubbed tub. Perhaps I prodded you toward your becoming independent? I'm okay with that."
And, I think, "I am proud that you see that by me being me, you are an amazing you."
A few painful lies along the way and we all made it.
There came a time, of course, when family gossip and tragedies and world realities were in our faces. There could be no lying. BUT, for the time that they didn’t need to know it, I didn’t speak of it. I was biding my time. I waited for my own clarity and, depending on how far-reaching the news was, I waited for the right time for them.
Define “right time”? Hell if I know; it can be minutes, hours, days. It can be one-on-one or family-time. I go as much by gut in these moments as my own emotional strength. I listen to a few inside voices asking me, "Do they need to know this right now? Can it wait until I'm more centered?" And I go from there. Centered or not.
But then we talked. I listened for their questions and answered just those. Then I always asked what more they wanted to know and what more they needed to know. The trick is in not over-answering, in knowing your child’s age and stage and needs and abilities and weighing all that against what else they might want/need to know (and who else they might hear it from). It’s dodgy, sticky, messy. Truth in the moment counts. How much to tell also counts. What moment counts.
Most importantly, every few days for several weeks, I’d check back with them (likely in the car where there is less pressure). I simply did not trust them to remember to ask; and I did not trust their other sources of information (namely other kids); and I did not trust where their own imaginations and silent night terrors might take them. So I gave them lots of chances to cover the reality again. Kids have an uncanny knack of knowing how much and what to know. And that was how and when we talked.
The truth is that I chose to wait on some truths about family peace and world peace until I felt that they could make peace with unpleasant truths and process how relationships, like friendships, shift and grow and die in inexplicable ways. I couldn’t explain everything and I learned to explain that. I never lied about what I didn’t know. I left those truths to joint internet research, other adult role models, and good counselors.
I may have omitted some truths, waited on others, stretched a few along the way, overstated more than I should have, but these lies never damaged our trust. In fact, as they grew up, we came to trust each other more.
And to be clear, I never lied about anything else. When they asked, I answered. And I gave them other trustworthy sources to fact-check.
The truth: I never lied about my being a teen. I was there. And (unfortunately?) I recall it. (I’m pretty sure my girls were just teasing me because their active imaginations had created those scary mom-as-teen images – that were probably pretty damn close to the truth – truth be told!)
Another truth: I am not ashamed of my lies. Nor do I believe I set a double standard when my girls reached their own whopper-lie stage. It is essential to role model proper lying and to explain the subtle differences. That’s the truth. And it’s not an alternate truth.
Lies. Truths. Both can hurt. Both have times and places and yes, sometimes, we get it wrong.
Still, my truth is that I lied. Some times. For some reasons.
And my kids are thanking me.
Looking for creative ways to talk with your kids? See TiffinTalk's conversation cards for Parents - Children & Teens. Talking with (not to) your kids can be fun. No lie!