Telling Kids the Whole Truth

Martha Leathe - Eliot, Maine
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, March 16, 2008
Martha Leathe

How much do you tell your kids about things like drugs, death or sex? Martha Leathe believes in being honest with her children, even when it makes her uncomfortable. By being honest with them, Leathe says they are more open and truthful with her.

Age Group: 30 - 50

Several weeks ago I got a call from a good friend whose husband had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Do we tell the kids,” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I answered.

“Do we use the C-word?”

“Yes, I think you do,” I said. “The boys deserve to know the truth, however heartbreaking it is.”

Adults always insist that children be honest, but how many of us are honest with our kids, particularly about the tough stuff: death, sex, corruption, our own failings?

I believe in telling children the truth. I believe this is vital for their understanding of the world, their confidence, and the development of their morals and values.

This does not mean kids need to be unnecessarily frightened or told more than they can handle. When our son was six, he tagged along while his older sister got her nose-ring changed. In the shop, he sifted through a big bin of brightly packaged condoms. “What are these?” he said.

“Condoms,” I replied.

“What are they for,” he asked. Briefly, I explained what condoms are, precisely where you put them, and how they work.

“Oh,” he said, clearly disappointed, I think, that they weren’t candy. It wasn’t a lot of information, but it was the truth.

Many people think they are protecting children when they spare them the truth. I disagree. I believe children possess an enviable ability to cope with and make sense of what even adults find confounding; they can accept the unacceptable in a way that astonishes me.

When we are honest with children, we also validate their intuition. If we can admit that yes, people can be mean, grandma does have a drinking problem, divorce is painful, we allow children to trust their gut. They can begin to recognize and rely on their own inner voice, which will speak to them throughout their lives.

Kids also have an uncanny sense of when something is up: They know a fake smile when they see one, they realize when we’re uneasy, they can tell when we’re lying.

One night I was in the car with our two oldest daughters. It was dark and cozy — the perfect time for a heart-to-heart conversation. Out of the blue, one of our kids said, “So, Mom, have you ever smoked pot?” I stalled a little, but the girls persisted. They had me and they knew it. So I told them the truth, albeit somewhat abridged. What ensued was a frank discussion about the lures and perils of drugs, well worth any discomfort. I believe my honesty was much more effective than warnings or platitudes.

Time marches on, and so do children. These same daughters are in college now; we have two other kids still at home. And while I have made plenty of mistakes as a parent, I do have clear and open relationships with each of our kids. I believe that my being truthful with our children has paid off, because I’m pretty sure that now they are honest with me.

Martha Leathe and her family live in Eliot, Maine. Much of her life has focused on education and children, having taught every grade from first through eighth and volunteered in her local public schools. She currently serves as a school board member.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.