Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the Lies We Tell Our Children (Or, Does dishonesty have its merits?)

No Santa Claus or Easter Bunny in our house, but definitely a Tooth Fairy...until the 6-year-old figured it out. When you've got clever kids for whom innocence was not meant to last, these "lies" live a short shelf life. We don't really think of them as lies, but they are. Sweet, joyful, tender lies, but lies none the less. When kids eventually find out the truth, they are hopefully wise enough to realize the stories were told not only to them but to all children, and so the lie doesn't sting so badly.

But what of the lies we tell our children to protect them? The ones that we pray will never be revealed.

When I was 12 years old, my rabbit died. We lived next to an agricultural testing ground that was cordoned off by a fence that bordered our neighborhood. It was pretty on the other side of the fence. When I asked my father what he'd done with Marshmallow (yes, she was white and fluffy), he said he'd buried her over the fence where she'd be safe and protected.

I believed him.

When I was in my twenties, it hit me one day that the fence was unclimbable with its barbed wire. And my "I can't lift heavy boxes because of my back" father would never climb a fence, especially not with a box filled with dead rabbit under his arm. So I challenged him.

Me: Did you really bury Marshmallow in the agricultural testing grounds?
Dad: No, I threw her over the fence.
Me: What???
Dad: Don't worry. I threw her far enough in so nobody would smell her decomposing.

That was Dad for ya.

To say I was angry would be doing the English language injustice. To say I was hurt would be closer to accurate. He had lied to me, and my mother had supported it, the willing accomplice. Then it hit me; in reality, what other option did my father have? In South Florida, you can't really bury anything deep enough in this limestone rock. Gardening works, but not burying dead animals far enough down to keep scavenging dogs from digging them right back up. So my Dad throwing Marshmallow over the fence was probably the wisest option. And lying to me about it was probably done out of love (or laziness, I'm still not sure).

But I am sure that being a parent faced with teaching lessons of death and mourning to a child is one of the most difficult tasks. Pets serve that purpose very well. If we're lucky, they are our teachers before we lose family members or friends. And when a parent is faced with treating their child compassionately while also protecting them from further pain, the lie becomes more justifiable.

Last night, my husband and I were talking about the compounding lies we've told our kids regarding what happened to their deceased pets, and we prayed they would never find out. We told those lies out of love and, quite honestly, out of respect for our children's desires to handle the deceased in what we saw as an unreasonable manner. But some day the kids will figure it out, because they're curious. And that's when they'll process the mixed message they received in their youth - the one that said, "Never tell a lie."

In a recent post, I referenced one of Missed Periods' posts, and I'm about to do it again, indirectly. Never say never. Absolutes don't serve an honest purpose in the real world. When children are little, we tell them never to lie. But as they grow and mature, they learn that all humans tell "white" lies because lying is essential to socializing well in this world and protecting people's feelings. (Actually, I don't care how you are today, but I'll pretend I do to be polite. That, my friends, is lying.) Lying is also necessary to tell a good joke, by the way.

And when our children figure out the truth about life, they will understand that sometimes lies have their place in our world. Hopefully, they will forgive their parents, who, at the grandparents' advice, consecrated the hamster's grave (2 of them, actually)  and "relocated" the corpses with the intention of preventing resurfacing of the dead due to heavy rains or pesky opossums. All this after the mourners had marked the graves with stones emblazoned with Sharpie markers. (They even returned the next day to plant flowers on the site.)

Sweet eternal dreams, dear Remy (hamster #1) and Joey (hamster #2). May you rest in peace (wherever you are), and may you know that you were deeply loved.

That is no lie.

Remy & Joey


  1. Sweet post. I'm afraid both my daughter's pets were buried in the back yard. Her question was, "Do they got to heaven?" Of course I answer in the affirmative. Is it really a lie if I don't know it exists?

  2. My 9 year old still believes in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny AND the Tooth Fairy--or lets me think she does. I figured it out at 6 or 7, so I keep thinking she's too old but then I think she's NINE, and I don't want to kill the magic for her.

    No pets here, so that's one I don't have to worry about.

  3. Awww. YD still believes, but she is 7 and on the edge, what with the two older sibs just waiting for her to find out.

  4. I don't have children and we didn't have any pets when I was young, so I can't completely relate to needing to "lie" -- I use the quotes because of the lack of malicious intent otherwise associated with the word -- and spare a child pain. But, as a writer, I do create situations I've never actually found myself in before, so I'll be filing this away as something to think about and possibly add as a story element at some point. (Should the opportunity present itself.)

    In the meantime, I'm going to adopt the term "throwing the body over the fence." As in, "If the guy in the cubicle next to me keeps slurping those noodles and loudly smacking his lips when he eats, his body is going over the fence." (Hypothetically-speaking, of course.)

  5. I still remember with vivid detail the day I discovered Santa Claus wasn't real. I eventually recovered. :)

  6. I decided lies weren't a bad thing when my nephew saw a dead deer on the side of the road. He fixated on it for weeks, worried what they had done with the body. Finally, I told him they had buried it in the deer cemetery.

    I just hope he never wants to visit.

  7. J.M.~ But then you'll have to "lie" and say you properly buried the body ;-)

    Libby~ Yeah, that's exactly what I'm afraid of.

  8. I lied to my parents when I was growing up, so I guess we're even!

    But seriously, you bring up an interesting issue, and I'd have to say that I agree with you-especially with regards to protecting children from things that they are not ready to deal with.

    And thanks for the shout out.

  9. Wow I suppose this is what I have to look forward to when I have children. Thanks for the warning. I must say that even after I read your first story about your dead rabbit and your father I retold it to my husband who laughed just as hard as I did. Yes I realize it isn't funny, but sometimes it's best not to know the truth.

    Happy Saturday!

  10. We teach our kids the reality of such figures early on, but allow them to get into the spirit of things and have fun with Santa and such just the saem. I do. Heck, I'll never grow up. Have a great week.

    Stephen Tremp

  11. Stephen~ Thanks for the feedback. And thanks for climbing on board ;-)