I have been spending much of the day today thinking about honesty and why it’s so important in relationships. I saw Glennon Doyle (author of Love Warrior, which if you have not read yet, you really really should) speak at Together Live last night in Portland and was incredibly inspired to bring more honesty and authenticity into my life and my writing. I cried as she talked about telling her kids about her divorce, both because she handled the topic with such raw grace and beauty, and because it made me think about the hard conversations I’ve had and will have to have in time with my own son about why his parents aren’t together.
Honesty is the foundation of trust. We need to be able to trust those we love to be honest with us, even when it’s hard, even when it might hurt.
This is true for our children too. Often as parents, we lie to our children not to be malicious, but to protect them, especially from topics we ourselves feel uncomfortable discussing – sex, death, addiction, vulnerability. Take the common examples of the family pet “running away” or the stork bringing babies.
Children are incredibly perceptive. When I was teaching, I once had a young child announce to me, “This is my daddy’s girlfriend!” while the dad looked completely shocked. He had introduced the girlfriend as a friend and hadn’t told him they were dating yet.
I’ve seen children who ask their parents if they will get a divorce, and had the parents tell me they were completely floored because they had been careful not to fight in front of the kids or let on that there were marital problems.
Rudolf Dreikurs once famously stated that “Children are great perceivers but poor interpreters.” Children will often pick up on information such as parents fighting or anger or sadness in their caregivers, but misinterpret it to be about them because they are still at an egocentric developmental stage. Parents may believe they are protecting their child by hiding the truth, but in fact can be making their child more anxious by not explaining a situation that they pick up on but do not understand.
Of course you can over do it. You don’t need to go into great detail with your young child about the adult complexities of sexual relationships and you certainly don’t want your child to be your sounding board about your marriage problems. However, modeling honesty for your children will teach them to be honest. Being brave enough to have hard conversations shows them that it’s OK to be brave and honest themselves and more importantly, it shows them how to have those conversations.
If you find yourself shying away from certain topics because they make you uncomfortable (sex, periods, anger, death, and romantic relationships are just a few common examples), take a deep breath and answer as honestly as you can. Answer only what your children ask, you don’t need to have a lengthy explanation unless they are truly curious. It’s OK if it’s awkward or if you feel you didn’t handle it well. It takes practice to have uncomfortable conversations, and they rarely go smoothly the first time. Keep practicing radical honesty, it gets easier (though perhaps not more comfortable) with time.