As parents, we feel the intensity of our relationships with our children and would do anything to protect them. It is our job. We wish they would never face unkindness or disease – and all their stories would have happy endings. But while rooted in good intention, sometimes these desires to shield children from harm keep parents painting a picture far sunnier than the truth. As we know, children can be very intuitive… which means they often notice when we cover up tension or skirt questions. After a couple of attempts to communicate, they may interpret avoided issues as off-limits or maybe even bad. This leaves them to process those untouchable questions on their own, making assumptions that, once planted, can take decades to unearth. This, obviously, is the opposite of our protective intentions.
The truth is, the truth can hurt. When a child gets a shot, and mom has consistently told them it will be fine, the child soon learns that mom doesn’t always shoot straight. Shots do hurt. They sting like a bee, and then subside by the time you count to ten. This is the truth. But if denial and avoidance of pain is taught by parents from the beginning, how will children learn to grieve, and what trust is being built? And if the truth on these issues are avoided when a child is young and curious, will they still come to us in their years of heightened awareness?
The first time I faced this issue in any significance was when my son was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 4. Over the course of those first few terrifying hours, we learned that he would endure much angst over the next few years. Chemotherapy, transfusions, procedures and suppressed immune function to name a few. We also quickly learned that our son needed honesty on his level. The child-life staff at the hospital immediately set the example for us as they helped him place an IV on a bear to show what it would look like. They brought in clear bags of red corn syrup and explained his disease while adding red hots and marshmallows to represent red and white blood cells. He was interested to know what was going on in his body, and he deserved an answer.
Throughout his treatment, we continued to share on his level and told the truth. When other children asked if they could catch cancer from our son, we explained in his presence and without shame, how this was not the case. But the most memorable of all the honest conversations, in my mind, was when we had been discharged from our initial hospital stay, and he started thinking long term. He asked about how his body was changing, about losing his hair, and how long he would need to take medicine. We had discussed these topics, but this time, when I explained there would be lots of medicines and more sick days the first six months, then less medicines for another two and a half years, it sunk in. My son, the four-year old I was put on this earth to protect, wept.
At first I tried to reassure him. I said it would be okay – that he would still play and laugh and have good days – but he would not be consoled. After a few quiet moments I finally asked him what part of our conversation had made him sad, and my sweet, smart, and intuitive son blurted out he was sad about “missing the rest of his fours”.
I was so taken back that he understood. It was true – the rest of his four-year-old year would be seen through the lens of his illness, and he had been robbed. Cancer had stolen what was meant to be a carefree and innocent time in his life, and he had every right to be sad. Every right. I held him and cried with him, telling him how sorry I was. I wished I could take it from him. I wished I could give him back his sick-free fours.
My son grieved that day. It was the truth, it was sad, and he felt the weight of his burden. But for the next 6 grueling months, and the remainder of the three plus years he was on his chemo, I cannot remember him feeling anywhere near that sad again. He trucked through, we communicated, and he lived his life as fully as he possibly could. He did not worry – he just went on being a boy. People would hesitate to bring up his illness, and nod in his direction to ask if he was doing okay, and I would look at my son and say what he already knew. “Yes! He is in remission, and we have our tough days when he feels sick, but he has been quite a champ through it all.” There was no whispering, and I formed my responses in words he could follow. Words that would bring truth and alleviate unnecessary fears. Trust was continuously built over those years of treatment and health, and we owned it collectively as part of our journey together. We grieved and moved on, which let my child be free. He was living in reality instead of the dark.
When we hide things from our children, or dodge their questions about the world, it seems we are not really protecting them, but protecting ourselves from hurting if they hurt. We can’t stand to see our children in pain, so it is tempting to take the easy road and avoid the truth. But truth always brings faster resolution, and when an issue touches their lives, it is okay to be the ones to bring it up. The truth can be delivered simply and on their level, in a way they can understand, and it is our job to walk them through the feelings that follow.
To build trust and have open and comfortable relationships with our children, we need to allow them to mourn, teach them to communicate, be vulnerable, and forgive. We are their guides in this world, and there are many parts of the tour that are tragic. I hope, through all the questions and the tragedies, we take their hands, cry with them, explain and encourage. Because if we want our children to share their hearts with us, and live fully in vulnerability and truth, the only option is to lead by example.