Pas de­vant les en­fants: how to lie to your kids

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

MUMMY, WHAT’S a vir­gin?” my eight-yearold son asked me, as we sat in the doc­tor’s wait­ing room. His high-pitched voice rang out through the si­lence. None of the other pa­tients moved a mus­cle, but I could feel the at­mos­phere in the room was trans­formed. Ev­ery­one had sprung men­tally to at­ten­tion, agog to see how I was go­ing to field this ques­tion.

Now, the thing is, in the pri­vacy of our home I would have been com­pletely up for giv­ing my child an hon­est, age-ap­pro­pri­ate an­swer — it’s not some­thing that fazes me par­tic­u­larly. But not in pub­lic, in a room full of lis­ten­ing strangers!

“It’s the name of a phone com­pany,” I replied, with­out miss­ing a beat.

The ten­sion washed away as the pa­tients turned their at­ten­tion back to their phones and mag­a­zines. I no­ticed, though, that quite a few mouths were twitch­ing at the cor­ners.

Should we lie to our chil­dren? Well… “Yes” seems to me to be the ob­vi­ous an­swer. Se­lec­tively and spar­ingly, of course. There are oc­ca­sions when telling the truth would be mist­imed, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, in­ap­pro­pri­ate or just plain in­con­ve­nient. Any­one who thinks that you must never do so is ei­ther a) not a par­ent or b) su­per­hu­man.

This is ad­mit­tedly not a key piece of ad­vice in the pop­u­lar parenting books — but then there are lots of things that par­ents do to get through the day that aren’t part of the re­ceived wis­dom on mod­ern child-care tech­niques. Let­ting the kids stay on the iPad for two hours straight, for ex­am­ple, be­cause you’re just too tired to take them to the play­ground. Or pour­ing your­self a stiff whisky at 5pm, so that the chaos of sup­per, bath and bed­time takes on a gen­tly re­mote feel as if it doesn’t quite have any­thing to do with you. I think that most of us man­age to be re­ally great par­ents some of the time — but not all of the time.

As far as ly­ing to your chil­dren is con­cerned, of­ten it’s more a case of “con­trol­ling the in­for­ma­tion they hear” by work­ing out ways to com­mu­ni­cate with other adults with­out the kids un­der­stand­ing. It’s all about dam­age lim­i­ta­tion and manag­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

When our chil­dren were very small, do­ing this was easy. “It’s b-a-th night,” one of us would say to the other, and the kids would be none the wiser. Then it started to be­come clear that spell­ing things out was ideal for their lit­er­acy devel­op­ment. It was very much in their in­ter­est to learn to spell in or­der to keep one step ahead of the game.

Once this no longer worked, we moved on to speak­ing French. The trou­ble with that was that my hus­band An­thony only has GCSE level French whereas I have a de­gree in it — so he never un­der­stood any­thing I said. These days if we try it, the kids just shout, “Stop speak­ing French!” so it’s not par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive.

I like the idea of tex­ting each other — clean and sim­ple. The prob­lem, though, is that un­like me An­thony is not sur­gi­cally at­tached to his phone, and so prob­a­bly wouldn’t no­tice that I’d sent the text un­til some time the fol­low­ing week.

So, these days, we have had to re­sort to straight­for­ward lin­guis­tic ob­fus­ca­tion — us­ing such ar­cane and hi-fa­lutin vo­cab­u­lary that the kids have no idea what we are say­ing. “I think the hour for the ablu­tions of our younger off­spring is at hand,” one of us will re­mark. Or: “Are the prog­eny aware of our im­pend­ing evening ab­sence?”

It’s very im­por­tant not to tell your chil­dren two con­trast­ing lies at the same time. I re­cently said to my hus­band, “Shall we have some gelato this evening?”

“What’s ‘gelato’?” my daugh­ter asked.

“It’s a type of yo­ghurt,” An­thony replied, at pre­cisely the same mo­ment that I said: “It’s a top­ping you put on pizza.”

A friend tells me she tries to com­mu­ni­cate se­cretly with her hus­band us­ing mime — with limited suc­cess: “We wrig­gle our eye­brows vi­o­lently and stare at ob­jects mean­ing­fully. We then be­come furious that the other party did not un­der­stand the ob­vi­ous mes­sage that Child 1 had two bis­cuits, but Child 2 must never know this be­cause Child 3 is com­ing for a play date and then all three chil­dren will need the re­main­ing six bis­cuits dur­ing their break from play.”

A sur­vey of meth­ods other par­ents use re­vealed a whole host of for­eign lan­guages (He­brew and Yid­dish scor­ing highly), the Nato al­pha­bet, mouthing si­lently, and a va­ri­ety of non­sense lan­guages such as Av­gav.

The con­stantly re­cur­ring com­ment was that these tech­niques were all ef­fec­tive for a time, un­til the chil­dren learned to in­ter­pret them. This makes me won­der whether the lan­guage teach­ing pro­fes­sion is miss­ing a trick. It should, per­haps, dis­pense with verb tables and vo­cab lists, and just have teach­ers sit­ting around talk­ing about some­thing as if they re­ally don’t want you to un­der­stand what they’re say­ing.

It’s hard to mime a com­plex mes­sage about bis­cuits

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