I’ve been wondering lately about how open we should be with our children. This came after a few particular incidents when I found myself having to make a choice about whether, how, and how much to inform my 3 year old.
The first was a biggie, separating from each other as she started preschool. The staff at her preschool were firmly of the mindset that parents should, in the first days of settling in, wait until their child was busy playing then slip out unnoticed. Their thinking was that this would minimise upset at saying goodbye.
The second was considering whether to tell her about a family member having been taken to hospital- and how much to explain about the worry that was so clearly associated with that.
The third, a regular occurrence in every household, was whether to explain a spat that me and her father had one morning.
Our adult lives are busy, often frantically so, and these decisions are often made in split seconds before we move on to something else. And such choices are made on a daily basis, from the mundane to the major. Do we forewarn our kid about their upcoming injections, do we tell them about the death of a distant family member, what do we answer when they ask us where babies come from?
Do we tell them the truth?
It’s easy to creep away when our child is busy and not face their tears at our departure, to assume that children won’t notice when plans change, to hope that anxiety and conflict might go unnoticed.
But children, and toddlers especially, are creatures of routine, habit, sameness. When your world is controlled by others, who decide every day what you wear, eat and do, it makes sense that you hang on to the few things you know to be absolute truths. I know that mummy will be here when I finish playing. I know that we have a visitor today. I know that mummy and daddy provide me with security. Any little adjustment to this very tenuous sense of normality can feel like an earth shattering change for them.
Isn’t it the case for all of us that when a change in the air is explained we can relax and move on to other things? When our partner is grumpy but informs us it’s because of a difficult work situation and reassures us there’s nothing we can do, a burden is lifted from our shoulders. This is amplified (X a gazillion) for children who, in their very nature and essential to their development, are completely egocentric beings who believe everything around them is there just for them (and so everything that happens around them must be linked to them…. And their fault).
At times our temptation might be to shield our children, to assume that they won’t be able to cope. But change is part of life. Chaos, even catastrophe, will affect us all on our parenting journeys. And, try as we might to protect our kids, even very young babies are extremely sensitive to tension and may react to the mildest of stress for you, until harmony is restored.
There is a balance to be struck too, in how much we then explain. Telling your child how much you’ll miss them when they’re at nursery may leave them feeling responsible for you, describing the family member’s illness in detail may raise anxiety, and detailing the problems in your relationship can only ever be burden for a child. But concise, age appropriate explanations (and only you know your child’s level of understanding) can help a child regain a grasp of control. The world hasn’t been turned upside down, it’s just been adjusted a little.
And later, when they invariably face the change, chaos and catastrophes of their own lives, we can hope that these explanations will be remembered.
That they will hear our long forgotten messages of ‘it’s all going to be ok’,
‘you’re going to get through this’ and be able to cope. Because that’s the truth.