It was one of the few times in my life when I knew for certain that I’d done the right thing. After his grandfather’s funeral, my 11-year-old son motioned me aside and said, “Mom, this is the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me, but it would have been worse if it had been a shock. Thanks for always telling me the truth.”
It had been a difficult decision. When we received the news of Pop’s terminal illness, my husband and I wrestled with whether to tell the kids, then nine and ten years old. We finally decided to do so, not all at once, but slowly, by degrees, leading them to the inevitable conclusion that things weren’t going to work out the way we all wanted them to. We helped them accept the fact that though there was hope for intermittent improvement and a good quality of remaining life, the eventual outcome would be death.
And now my son was telling me that our decision had been the right one—that shielding him and his younger sister would have done them a disservice and robbed them of an opportunity for growth.
There were many reasons we made the decision we did. The kids already knew something was up, and telling them the truth validated their own perceptions. Like all children, they could read the signs of trouble: the furrowed brow, the anxious voice, the sudden flare-ups. If, in the face of evidence to the contrary, we had pasted on pseudo-smiles and told them everything was fine, we would have taught them to doubt their own instincts—and to doubt us.
Telling the kids the truth showed them we believed they had the ability to handle the ups and downs that are part of daily existence—and that made them feel strong. Dealing honestly with the first real tragedy in their lives helped them become more resilient, more compassionate, and more competent. Today they are adults and sometimes I marvel at their ability to just keep putting one foot in front of the other when times are tough. I think that rock-steady dependability stems from the honesty that was the hallmark of their growing up.
Obviously we tempered our truth-telling with common sense. And we tried to be sensitive to our children’s differences. Our son always wanted details. The more knowledge he had, the more comfortable he felt. Our daughter, on the other hand, wanted only the barest outline. She was always quick to interrupt if she felt overloaded. “Okay, Mom,” she’d say. “I understand. You don’t have to tell me any more.”
The truth, though it may make us momentarily uncomfortable, ultimately does set us free. I believe that if we treat our children with love and kindness, and they know they can count on us to help them cope with difficult situations, they have nothing to fear from the facts.
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