What should we tell our kids? Tell them the truth, always

There is a difference between not telling a child everything about a complicated life event and telling them a boldface lie.

Bill and Mary tried to conceive a baby for two years. When they found out that Bill had a very low sperm count, the young couple finally accepted that it would be impossible for them to have a baby of their own.

After days of anguished discussion, they decided to try artificial insemination by donor. After a few months, Mary became pregnant and soon they were both the proud parents of a beautiful daughter, Amy. But now they wondered, when Amy is old enough, should they tell her how she was conceived? Should they tell her that Bill is not her biological father?

Many families have had complicated life experiences of one kind or another. Some parents may have been less than perfect teenagers. Their histories may include drug or alcohol abuse, school problems or even legal difficulties. Some adults may have had a previous marriage when they were young that they would just as soon forget about.

Should parents tell their children the truth, no matter what the consequences? How do parents decide when to tell their kids important stories about their lives?

These are thorny questions. Indeed, they raise an even larger parental dilemma — is it ever permissible to lie to children to spare them pain and confusion? Or should we tell children the truth no matter what the consequences? How do parents decide?

Below are several important points to consider:

Do other family or friends know this information? Family secrets have a way of being disclosed in the worst ways at the worst times. Will your child hear about these events from someone else? It’s very distressing for children to hear important information from someone other than their parent. They feel betrayed. They may never completely trust their parents again.

What kind of adults do we want our children to become? In life, the truth is often complicated, confusing and painful. Children depend on parents to untangle complex life circumstances so that they are less puzzling and more comprehensible to them. They expect their parents to help them cope with the discomfort of life’s twists and turns. They rely on their trust in their parents. If that trust is broken, much can be lost.

And, if we want our children to tell us the truth when their lives become more intricate, as life becomes as we get older, we need to model that behavior throughout their childhood — not just when it’s convenient or easy for us.

Do we have trust and faith in ourselves and our children? We must have faith that our youngster will come to understand our difficult life decisions. These lessons will help them become open, honest and responsible adults. Our goal as parents is to prepare children for adult life, to be able to navigate through the periodic rough waters of adulthood.

Don’t lie to children. There is a difference between not telling a child everything about a complicated life event and telling them a boldface lie. We have to find ways of sharing information that is age appropriate for children. Kids have a way of asking parents tough questions. In the long run, it is always better to find a way of telling them the truth, in language and with concepts that they can understand.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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