How honest are you with family and friends? You’d probably rank yourself pretty high on the honesty scale. I do, too; truthfulness is a value I earnestly live by and aim to model for my children. However, there have been times when one of my kids posed a loaded question and I was faced with the quandary of how much truth to reveal. Parents can easily leave out information when discussing touchy subjects with kids. We take into account so many factors – things like their maturity level, their past experience, how they process things, how what we share will affect their future choices, and even what time of day it is. And we often evaluate all of this in a split second! In these moments, we can unconsciously offer children half-truths as we try to protect them from pain, anxiety, and fear. I’ve toed this line many times, not only as a parent, but as a friend, family member, and colleague.
Writer Meg Rosoff shared her experience navigating difficult truths as a parent in an article she wrote for The Guardian. Rosoff learned she had breast cancer in 2004. At the time, her daughter was seven. She shared the news with her, explaining that everything would be fine. The writer’s recovery was by no means a sure thing. Still, Rosoff and her husband approached her treatment and healing process with an upbeat attitude. Of course, they did. Parents naturally want to shield their children from scary stuff. They were trying to show their daughter that battling cancer wasn’t anything to worry about.
What no one was talking about was the fact that Rosoff’s youngest sister had died of breast cancer a few years prior. The writer’s daughter had witnessed her cousins lose their mother, which made the possibility of losing her own understandably real and frightening. Later upon reflection, Rosoff realized that by not being completely honest with her daughter about the disease and the recovery process, she left her to imagine the worst. “By not explaining the situation properly,” says Rosoff, “we somehow neglected to make it clear that I was so ill because of the treatment rather than the disease. That was enormous. Think about it. She heard I had cancer. Within days I was hospitalized. I went bald, lost weight, looked sick and exhausted, my right arm was covered with streaky bruises from the intravenous infusions. She had seen my sister in a similar condition a few months before she died. Gloria logically thought that I was dying.”
Most parents ask for nothing but the utmost truthfulness from their children. However, we can offer less than honest answers to our children, creating a kind of one-way street of communication. We expect our children to show us respect by being honest with us. But we do not always extend the same courtesy to them. More commonly, we exclude large pieces of information, or brush over uncomfortable details, giving them only a partial view of a situation – a handful of facts they are left to puzzle together, creating stories or explanations with the help of their own fears and assumptions.
Kabbalists teach that it is our spiritual responsibility to live truthfully and connect to the Light with the intention of opening our eyes to greater world truths. This is challenging. As parents, we long to offer our children understanding without the pain that sometimes comes with it. My mentor Rav Berg often spoke about the process being the purpose. This is true for both grown-ups and kids. Guiding our children through hard stuff gives them the tools they need to become resilient adults.
A recent study at MIT took a closer look at how well children are able to pick up on subtleties from adults. Researchers have established that children can detect when adults are lying to them. But professor Laura Schulz wanted to learn if children can tell when adults are telling them the truth, but not the whole truth. Through a series of experiments with children and multi-functional toys, researchers found that children are able to sense when adults are not giving them enough information, which directly affects how trustworthy and knowledgeable they think those adults are.
In regards to these conclusions, Hyowon Gweon, lead author of a paper outlining the MIT study says, “When someone provides us information, we not only learn about what is being taught; we also learn something about that person. If the information is accurate and complete, then you might also trust that person in the future. But if this person has taught you something wrong, has made a mistake, or has omitted something that’s important for you to know, then you might want to suspend your trust, be skeptical of the information he provides in the future, and even seek other sources of information.”
I find all of this tremendously fascinating. Although, you may think this is obvious, kids are much smarter and more intuitive than we give them credit for. Some may consider children gullible and full of innocence, looking to us for eternal guidance. I speak from experience when I say, they are onto us.
When we tell our kids half-truths, we do it because we want to protect them. Plain and simple. Though, in actuality, we are only protecting ourselves from having discussions that are challenging or painful. As parents, this isn’t something we have the luxury of ducking out of. It’s our job to create space for these conversations, and hold our children’s hands as they make their way through the world of big, grown-up stuff. The better we are able to do this, the more likely we are to maintain their faith in us.
Karen Berg said, “Honesty is a quality of the Light. Of course, honesty requires courage. When we hesitate to tell the truth, it is often because we are afraid of the consequences. And sometimes we may be afraid for good reasons! But even if the initial reaction to our honesty is messy, it is sometimes better to let the chips fall where they may. That way we allow room for something more solid and authentic to take hold.”
To be clear, I am not encouraging you to share details about life situations that are not appropriate. For instance, your daughter doesn’t need to know her aunt and uncle are getting a divorce because of infidelity. Although, you can explain that sometimes couples in long-term relationships experience a change of feelings they can’t work through; the only way to move forward is to end the partnership, wish each other well, and go their separate ways. Use discretion and be aware of what information can be traumatic, or negatively impact your child’s relationship with others. And it is never okay to share gossip with children.
Kids (yes, even teenagers) want to believe we’ve got a handle on things. We are like captains of a ship, steering our families through every storm that comes our way. When we pretend the skies are clear and there is no need for concern, we are not protecting our children from worry or fear. We are actually undermining their beliefs in our abilities to manage a crisis, possibly creating more worry and fear. It’s okay to tell them you’re not sure how everything will turn out. You can recognize the gravity of a situation, while reminding them of all the positivity in your lives. Your honesty gives them something to hold on to in stormy weather.