I found out I was pregnant with my first child on my 20th birthday. That day I made a commitment to my unborn son to always tell the truth. You may be wondering why I would do this. Why make such an unrealistic promise?
From an early age I observed harm and damage caused by lies. Even small, “white” lies seemed to have devastating consequences. Over time I found that the lies I told kept my relationships distant and cold, when what I truly long for is connection and warmth. My relationship to my now grown children is the most important relationship in my life and creating trust, safety, and connection with them has been a top priority for me from day one.
As a parent, the temptation to protect my child’s feelings when something disappointing happens or I am worried they might throw a fit, yell, cry, or freak out is strong. Imagine this: I see that my child has left a half eaten cupcake on the table and I don’t really want them to eat anymore because they are already in a total sugar rush moment, so I quickly toss the half eaten cupcake in the trash, hoping they will forget all about it. Then my child comes back looking for the cake…. What do I say when they ask, “where is my cupcake?” Do I say, “I don’t know, maybe someone mistakenly ate it?” Or do I honestly tell them that I felt they already ate enough and so I threw the half they left behind in the trash? Telling a quick and easy lie versus telling the harder truth can be a really tough choice to make in the heat of the moment.
I have learned that telling the truth takes practice. It often requires returning to something that may have come out as a half truth and coming clean, apologizing, and starting over.
Let’s come back to my 20-year-old-self, the one who made this commitment to always tell the truth and now has an infant. What does being honest with an infant look like? For me this looked like talking to him, even in utero, as an intelligent, knowledgable being. My husband and I did all that we could to make him feel welcome and respected in our lives. We did not use “baby talk” and we did not use expressions like “he doesn’t even know what we are talking about.” We used complete sentences, genuine expression, and legitimate vocabulary when talking with and around him. Most importantly, we included this third member of our small young family as an equal.
The truth is that I genuinely believe that infants understand much more than we can even fathom. Infants understand much more than even we do as adults; they perceive beyond the verbal, auditory information being imparted and pick up on energetic signals and emotional cues. My ability to communicate honestly allowed me to share with my child what would be happening and also prepared me to be a more balanced and authentic version of myself as a parent. I have aspired, from conception to adulthood, to give my kids the gift of honest communication, connection, and authenticity all of which are important values of mine.
By the time my son was a toddler his kind, generous and outgoing personality was already very apparent. In fact his first full phrase at just over two years old was “Hi, what’s your name?” He loved talking with people so much that we had the practice of coming downtown nearly everyday so he could walk around and talk to and interact with people in our town. Most of the shop keepers, waitstaff, and downtown regulars knew my kid and he knew them by first name, while most people only knew me as “that kid’s mom”. At first I tried to shush him everywhere we went, but I learned that this was his most authentic self. We talked about how to be safe and polite and I learned how to be the parent of an extrovert.
Early winter the year my son was three years old I learned something else about myself and my attempt to always tell the truth as a parent. It was the holiday season and we were walking in the mall on our meet and greet rounds for the day, when a total stranger stopped us to ask my son what he wished Santa would bring him this year.
I had gotten used to my son talking with random people in the mall. I had even gotten used to the experience of total strangers stopping to give me advice or to judge me as this was a common experience once I was pregnant and had children. (This does not seem to be something people do to single folks walking around. Parents definitely receive the brunt of nosey people’s opinions. Sigh.)
This situation caught me off guard. My first thought was, “why does this man feel confident enough to assume that we celebrate Christmas to stop us and asks such a personal question?” My second thought was, “why does this man feel he has earned the trust it takes to have a child share his deepest wishes?” My son on the other hand with his kind, generous and outgoing personality, did not shy away or look at me in confusion, he simply said, “I always wish for a dirt bike.” Then when the man passed he looked at me and said “Who’s Santa?”
While my husband and I were both raised celebrating Christmas, we agreed that our most important value in raising our son was to always tell the truth. This is harder than it sounds when raising children because we have all been sensitized to feel it is ok to tell all kinds of lies to children especially around holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Our entire society does it, from little mistruths like, “I don’t know where all the candy went” even though you ate it all, to larger more confusing mistruths like the story of the Native Americans and Pilgrims having a feast together in celebration of a great harvest.
I personally remember finding out my parents had been tricking me at Christmas. I couldn’t believe they had lied to me year after year by telling me Santa came at night. I was devastated to think that they could not trust me enough to tell me the truth about how much they had to go through to make Christmas happen. I was really hurt that they did not let me be part of all the preparation and instead told me it all just appeared magically in the morning. I felt like they thought I was stupid. I am still unpacking all the mistruths I was told as a child and they are not easy to stop perpetuating.
I find that sometimes things just seem to be “the way it is done.” It has taken a lot of courage, commitment, and strength to stand up, challenge tradition, and attempt to do it differently. For the first three winters with my son we decorated the house with lights and greens to help us get through the dark cold winters of Northern New England. We gratefully accepted gifts from family and friends, but we never mentioned Santa.
The experience of my son being asked what he want’s from Santa by a total stranger was the first time he heard this name. I was stopped in my tracks by the whole experience, especially his question “who is Santa?” I did not know what to say. After a deep breath I began, “the spirit of Santa is the idea of unconditional giving. Santa is everyone who loves you.” He simply looked at me and with a satisfied exhale said, “ok” and skipped on to run towards his favorite store.
Our approach to this holiday has evolved over the years and on many occasions I found myself answering the question, “Is Santa real?” I would say “The spirit of Santa is real. Can you imagine a person so generous they give a gift to every child in the world?!” From time to time my children would ask if we could pretend that Santa comes to our house. The element of surprise is so exciting and we used it to create fun games like scavenger hunts or gifts with riddles and clues. I love leaning into the magic of speaking out loud or writing down a dream or wish and then enjoying the process of watching it manifest. Creating tradition and being together as a family is a value I hold close and it takes courage to step into a unique, personal and true expression of that.
The more I hold myself accountable to always telling my children the truth the closer we have become as a family. This includes moments when I have to be vulnerable enough to admit that I don’t always know the answer or that the information I have may be wrong or may not be the same information someone else might share with them. Over time I have realized that the truth can change and that the truth can be shadowed by our own biases and opinions. More important than knowing the truth is knowing how to constantly be curious and think critically. I hope I have taught my children to discern for themselves what feels true to them and to be humble enough to allow that truth to change over time as they continue to learn and grow.