Be Honest With Your Child About the Tough Stuff

No matter how stable your family is, there will probably come a time when you need to have a tough conversation with your kid.

No matter how stable your family is, there will probably come a time when you need to have a tough conversation with your kid. An Aunt is diagnosed with cancer. A beloved pet dies. As parents, we struggle with how much to explain and whether or not to bring it up at all. We wonder if our kids will understand.

I have one friend whose son had cancer. She and her husband chose to be honest with their other children. Another friend has a husband who is HIV+ and whose viral load is approaching full-blown AIDS. They still haven’t told their pre-teen daughter. Personally, I think they’re making a mistake.

I’ve had my share of difficult talks with my five-year-old, from telling him about my divorce to explaining that he doesn’t have a grandmother on my side because my mother died. But by far the most difficult talks have been those related to his father’s disease.

My ex-husband has primary-progressive multiple sclerosis. As his disease has worsened, so has his ability to walk. At kindergarten orientation, he trailed his hand along the lockers, the school walls, and the backs of chairs for balance. He leaned against bookcases for support. I noticed that the tips of his shoes were scuffed and worn bare from falling.

Due to a combination of pride, toxic masculinity, and denial, he refuses to use any of the canes multiple doctors have given him. In fact, he left them behind when he moved out of our house. He still won’t install hand controls in his car and instead uses his legs to manipulate the pedals, even though his legs frequently spasm. Ask anyone who knows him well and they’ll tell you his disease is worsening. Yet not according to him. That dynamic plays out in his relationship to our son.

During the first week of kindergarten, my son’s teacher sent me an email requesting that I come in and talk to her about some concerns she had about C. I groaned. Whose kid gets in trouble the very first week of school? I couldn’t wait two days to find out what she wanted to talk about, so I emailed her back and asked her to explain. She told me that he’d been telling kids that his daddy was going to die soon.

At five years old, my son can see that his father is different from other dads. I’ve trained him from a young age not to grab our legs walking up stairs, or run too far ahead on the sidewalk, or pull on us because his daddy might fall over. While he can see the differences, he can’t make sense of them quite yet.

When my ex-husband falls on the ice or has to hold onto things for support, C interprets his father’s claims that nothing is wrong in the worst possible manner: Obviously, he’s hiding something awful from C and must be dying.

When deciding how to handle difficult conversations with children, I now come down on the side of being honest and upfront. If not told the whole truth, some kids – like mine – fill in the worst possible interpretation. Recently, I watched this play out again.

After two days stuck inside due to snow, I’d loaded my son into the car and taken him to Como Conservatory. This sprawling iron building houses plants from the rainforest and other tropical climes in rooms muggy with heat – the perfect antidote to a cold Minnesota winter. Running from one room to the next, C passed a man sitting at a table with a frog in a terrarium and a frog’s skeleton on display.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the skeleton.

“It’s a frog’s skeleton. See how long their bones are?” The volunteer pointed out the jointed limbs.

C tilted his head. “Did someone kill the frog to get its skeleton?”

“No, no, no,” the man shook his head. “It was already dead.”

“Oh, okay.” He looked up at me with the same big blue eyes that stole my heart the first time I held him in my arms. Then he said, “Mommy, I want Daddy to die in the next five days.”

It had been a few months since hed made comments about his father dying, and Id thought we were over this phase. I forced a weak smile for the shocked volunteer and hustled C onto the next exhibit.

If something big, like cancer or MS, exists in your childs life, expect to have the death conversation more than once. They might ask the same questions several times, and over a period of time. Part of childhood is making sense of the world around them, and while you may wish it wasn’t the case, death, too, is part of their world.

Later that day, in the conservatory, I sat down on a bench and pulled C into my arms. “You know that your daddy has a disease, right?” I asked him.

He nodded solemnly. “Yes, that’s why we park in handicapped.”

“Uh-huh. It’s hard for him to walk very far. Do you remember what disease he has?”

He shook his head no, and I explained multiple sclerosis to him again. “But he’s not going to die from it, honey. It just makes life a little harder.”


I don’t know how much C understood, and I’ll probably have to go over it all with him again. My ex doesn’t like to talk about it and shrugs off or avoids questions. I try to walk a delicate line between being honest with my son and not ticking him off.

Ultimately, I value creating an open environment for discussion in favor of my ex’s possible anger. In cases of divorce, therapist Kathleen Matthews, LICSW, recommends parents communicate openly and tell each other these sorts of discussions have taken place. She also advises, “I would want to let the child know that I was going to be sharing what they said (if they are over eight years old usually) so they don’t feel betrayed.”

Children are sensitive souls, who pick up and notice more than one might assume. If not allowed to ask questions and express their emotions honestly, the stories they tell themselves to make sense of the world may grow to epic and awful proportions. If you explain a situation simply and in an age appropriate manner, they’re capable of grasping a great deal.

My son knows the term ‘synapse,’ and I’ve used sugar packets and creamers at a restaurant to explain nerve endings and pathways. A little creativity may be necessary, but most parents have plenty of that.

Truly, honesty is the best policy.

When Do You Tell Your Child That Some Promises Will Be Broken?

There are subtleties to the promises we make. As adults, that’s easier to understand. Kids, on the other hand, are a little more black and white.

“Why don’t you go ahead and pack up shop.”

“No, Mom, we’re waiting for the lady in the stroller, then we will.”

My two younger children decided to spend their spring afternoons raiding the pantry and selling “baked goods” to the neighbors. On the first afternoon they did quite well and made $10. I assume by the third afternoon people were possibly avoiding our street, walking their dogs on a different route. You can only buy so many pre-packaged chocolate chunk cookies and fig bars.

I was outside weeding the flower bed on the third consecutive day that my little entrepreneurs set up a folding table, a sign made from construction paper and a Sharpie, and a mug for the cash. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lady walk by with a her baby in a stroller and then I heard her tell my son, “I’m so sorry I forgot my money again today. I promise to bring a dollar tomorrow!”

“Okay!” he said with hope in his voice.

The next day was Saturday and he was out early in the morning, peddling his  pantry goods again. By 3 p.m. that afternoon I was ready for him to take down his table and come inside for a bit. However, he was determined to stay outside until that nice lady returned. It was hard for me to tell him that she may not.

When she told him she would be back, my son heard that as a promise and he was sure she was telling the truth. Of course, I wasn’t so sure. I know how I myself might act in a situation like this. I might avoid that street so I wouldn’t have to encounter that someone selling something again.

I also know I have my own trust issues. As an adult I know that people aren’t always going to do what they say they are going to do – big things and little things. Sometimes they just forget. Sometimes they simply don’t want to do it. Sometimes they outright lie.

But how do your tell that to your eight-year-old son?

Well, you don’t. You realize that he will have plenty of time in this life to figure it out on his own. So instead, you say something like, “Maybe she decided to take an extra nap with her baby today,” or, “Perhaps she got swept away by a tornado like Dorothy!” Okay, maybe don’t say that second one.

The dilemma for me comes in when I think, Do I let him hold out hope that she will surely return? Because he’s only eight and I’m not completely jaded yet, my heart says yes. But I’m also tempted to give him a little bit of reality and say, “There’s a pretty good chance she won’t come back today,” and, “People don’t always do what they say they are going to do.”

Perhaps he’s still too young for that lesson.

I think for now it’s best to let him believe that she fully intended to come around again and buy something from his sale.

He did pack up shortly after I mentioned doing so. I think he was just tired of being out there and wanted to come in and watch some TV. I kind of hope she didn’t walk by after that, disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill her promise. But in a way, I also hope she did.

“Mom, Have You Ever Smoked Pot?”

When faced with having to answer a tough question, one that sets the stage for a lifetime of openness and honesty, it’s worth a few minutes of discomfort.

There comes that time in every parent’s life when one of their children asks a question that stops them dead in their tracks.

We freeze, like a deer in headlights, but realize immediately the next words we utter could change our parenting path forever. There is no time to confer with our partner or to consider psychological and emotional ramifications of whichever tact we take, whether it’s truth, avoidance, or denial.

For me, it was my son. He was 12 at the time – at an age of vulnerability and inquisitiveness with teen angst lurking right around the corner. Not yet an adult but so much more than a child. I had to weigh the pros and cons of my answer in a nanosecond, not one of my best attributes – articulation under pressure.

“Did you smoke marijuana when you were young, mom?” he queried.

Apparently, his class was visited by a local police representative from D.A.R.E. (“an international substance abuse prevention education program that seeks to prevent use of controlled drugs, membership in gangs, and violent behavior.”)

My brother and both my sisters are alcoholics, one sister also became a heroin addict. My husband had a long history of drug abuse and alcoholism and my own personal history included drug and alcohol abuse.

Being the last of four children, I watched as my siblings’ lives crumbled into chaos and turmoil so my personal history was not as serious. However, there was only one honest answer to the question asked by my son, no gray area to grant any side-step shuffle; it was a simple, forthright question, requiring a yes or no answer.

Instantly, the memories of every joint I rolled and smoked, every line of cocaine I snorted, every drunken night out with my friends were flashing in my mind like the disco lights in the clubs we frequented. Before I spoke, I imagined his face, the innocence in his eyes waning right before my own, as I told him of my sordid past, knowing he would never look at me, his mother, the same way ever again.

No, full disclosure was certainly not the answer.

I am a firm believer that children deserve honest answers to questions relative to their age. Certainly my son didn’t need to be subjected to a barrage of information regarding my family history of drug and alcohol abuse but he was old enough to understand the prologue of a story he would one day come to know.

“Mom?” he said, snapping me back into the present. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had made my decision. Every parent, at some point, has to decide for themselves whether they will hold their past indiscretion cards close to their vest or show them to their children; and if shown, how many at a time?

It felt like someone else taking his young hand and leading him into our living room to sit on the couch and have what was to be our first judicious mother/son conversation.

“Son, I am going to tell you some things and I want you to listen until I’m done and then you can ask any questions you like, okay?”

He nodded in agreement and adopted a more adult posture, sitting up straighter and placing his hands on his lap. He instinctively knew by my demeanor that this conversation was going to be different and I marveled at how he prepared his ADHD mind to listen – really listen – and concentrate on what his mother was about to say.

“When I was younger, older than you but still a lot younger than I am now, my friends and I did smoke sometimes when we were together. It was a different time when I was growing up, we didn’t think of it as a gateway drug,” (a term I knew he was familiar with).

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I shouldn’t have done it or that I wish I hadn’t because I don’t feel that way. I want you to know the truth. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not saying it’s okay for you to do, it’s not, it’s a different world now.”

“I can tell you there are going to be times in your life, very soon as a matter of fact, when you are going to have to make decisions for yourself about trying cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and all kinds of things. I won’t be right there to advise you and neither will dad. You have to decide for yourself. I want you to listen to all the things they tell you in this D.A.R.E. program and when you have questions, about this or anything at all, come to me and ask, okay? You need a lot of information to make good decisions in life. Does that answer your question? Do you want to ask anything else?”

“No, I’m good” he nodded.

“I’m going outside to ride bikes with Andy. Oh, and thanks for telling me the truth, mom.”

As I watched him clamor out the door, I knew I was no longer watching my little boy leave to play. I was watching a soon-to-be-young-man growing up way too fast in a world full of potential pitfalls and danger. I also knew he would feel comfortable coming to me when he had concerns or questions. That, I decided in a nanosecond, was a relationship worth telling the truth for.

Research Tells Us Your Kids Are Lying And You Don’t Know It

New research shows that many parents wouldn’t even know if they’re raising Pinocchio.

We all know that children can tell some far-fetched falsehoods from time to time, but most parents believe that they can discern the difference between a truthful report and a tall tale, at least when it comes from their own kids.

That’s what parents reported in a recent study published by the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Unfortunately for them, and for parents everywhere, the study, “Can Parents Detect 8- to 16-year-olds’ Lies? Parental Biases, Confidence, and Accuracy,” found that although parents were more likely to believe their own children, they were just as hopeless at detecting lies from them as they were from complete strangers.

This study builds on the popular idea of presumed honesty and truth bias. The concept of this is nothing new when it comes to relationships built on trust. A 1997 study by DePaulo et. al. confirmed that adults judged their own friends’ and partners’ statements as more honest than those of complete strangers. And, as one would expect, the closer the relationship, the stronger the truth bias held true. In simple terms: we want to believe the people we love, so we give them the benefit of the doubt. And when it comes to love, most would agree that the parent-child bond trumps all.

So does the same bias hold true for the delicate relationship between parent and child? Are parents more likely to trust their own children? Are parents better at detecting lies from their own children than from children they’ve never met? How about age – are parents more likely to believe younger children than they are to believe teens?

The results are in and the kids take all. Parents are mostly clueless when they’re being lied to.

In the study published in the upcoming July 2016 issue, researchers Evans, Bender and Lee gave children a test during which the answers were readily available on an answer key set to the side. They then filmed the children while asking them if they had peeked at the answers to the test.

Researchers showed the video footage to three groups of adults: childless adults, parents of other kids, and parents of the kids in the videos. While childless adults and parents of other kids were just as inept at identifying lies as the kids’ own parents were, they were far more likely overall to predict that kids were indeed lying.

Meanwhile, parents of the kids in the videos were nearly twice as likely to predict that the answers were truthful. In reality though, these parents were no more accurate in their predictions than the other groups of adults. And, for the record, their kids were no less guilty of cheating. Simply put, the parents in the study were twice as likely to believe their own kids even when the kids were lying.

So what’s it all mean? Parents believe and trust their children, even when the trust is unfounded. And of course, trust is central to any relationship. But can too much trust be a bad thing?

It’s not uncommon to read about juvenile offenders or even convicted felons whose parents maintain their innocence against all odds. And even once their offspring are found guilty, parents often plead for lighter sentences while justifying the behavior of their convicted children. Remember the infamous letter written by Brock Turner’s father after the Stanford rape trial? While unconditional love is an admirable and even necessary trait of parenting, it seems that it can also obscure reality when it comes time for children to take responsibility.

This study suggests that it may be time for us parents to step back and evaluate our kids more objectively. We can continue to love, support, and encourage our kids but if we want to raise a generation that takes responsibility for their actions, perhaps we need to stop giving them the automatic benefit of the doubt, and start holding them accountable for their actions.