We teach our kids to always tell the truth but when it comes to questions from them which require an a truthful answer from us then the rules can become rather fuzzy. This is awkward. Cause children ask lots of questions on an almost daily basis and there's no pause button to buy you some time while you think of how to respond.
In the past it seems the common adult response was often a simple conversation embargo. Stop the line of questioning as quickly as it starts and employ distraction until curiosity is abandoned and da-dah! Problem solved. No uncomfortable conversations happen, no admissions of ignorance are necessary and life goes on as before.
As a kid I distinctly remember raising certain topics which were immediately closed for discussion. It was infuriating. So, before even embarking on puberty I determined that any child I may one day have could ask any question they wanted of me and I would answer it, as best I could and with as much information as was needed.
This was a noble goal. But as with lots of things, the pendulum can swing too far the other way.
As it turns out I am not always the best judge of what constitutes an age-appropriate response. Nor am I always alert to the non-verbal signs which should prompt a change in conversation. My approach has backfired on several occasions and I offer you, my non judgemental friends the examples below.
Exhibit A: Late night shopping with Eldest, aged 12. A prime bonding opportunity. Both of us are night people and no siblings are present. We are getting a mid-week food top up and some clothes for him. I employ my usual snake-up-and-down-every-aisle approach, even though we have no reason to be in half of them. This tried and trusted method ensures I don't risk missing anything I forgot to put on the list. If in fact I have made a list and remembered to bring it. We are in the £1 aisle. (ONE POUND! I love this section. Does every Tesco have one or is it just Newport?)
Me: Wow- a pound for that! (Gesturing towards a pregnancy test kit). The last time I used one of them it was 6 quid! I feel proper cheated now!
E: Why- what is it?
Me: A pregnancy test. They used to be well expensive. Maybe they still are and this one's just crap.
E: (Still unsure what we're talking about) So... What is it exactly?
Me: It's a do-it-yourself kit that a woman can do at home, you know, to see if she's pregnant or not.
E: Oh right- what do you do with it exactly?...
Me: Well, it's like this plastic stick thing and the woman wees on the end bit and if she is pregnant then a little line appears on the window. And if she isn't then it doesn't. Then she knows.
E: Oh. That's ... gross.
Me: Yeah but quite handy. You know I did a test like that when I was pregnant with all of you, well I did more than one actually- you know just to be sure and I just chucked yours in the bin when it was used but a few months later Lesley (remember Lesley? Thomas' mum?) well she told me that she'd heard that the used sticks keep for ages and the little line on the window doesn't ever disappear completely, it only fades so she kept her stick from when she was having Thomas and it didn't smell or anything and I thought 'Ooh that's cool' but it was too late for your stick obviously cause it was in the bin but I kept Jackson's and Madi's- they're in their memory boxes- but I don't have yours cause I never thought to keep it. Does that bother you?
E: (Clearly most uncomfortable with the conversation but I am too steeped in nostalgia to notice) Em- no...
Me: Oh, that's good.
E: Cause it's disgusting.
Me: Oh sorry. It's just I want to treat you all the same and have the same little momentos for you all. I've even kept the belly button clip for you all cause babies have this plastic clip thing on their stomachs for first few days after they're born then the stump all shrivels up and drops off and-
E: (interrupting) AND YOU NEED TO STOP TALKING NOW!...
Me: Oh sorry. Shall we go to the check out?
E: YES PLEASE!... *(Sigh)*
This was clearly awkward.
But it's not the most inappropriate conversation I've ever had with E. That conversation happened when he was 5 years old. It's all the tooth fairy's fault. I was so busy planning my Father Christmas strategy that she swooped right in under my radar while I was focussed on him. Sneaky pixie.
Exhibit B: After many long days of wobbliness E lost his first tooth one afternoon while in school. I was duly met at the door with a shy toothless grin and his tooth carefully wrapped in some blue paper towel, sellotaped for additional security. His teacher smiled as she watched him hand it to me for safe keeping and reminded him to put it under his pillow that night for the tooth fairy. E smiled politely then as soon as we were out of earshot whispered loudly 'What was she talking about?'
In all the tooth wobbling days that had preceded this day I had never mentioned the Tooth Fairy's existence. I'd told eldest he'd get a coin in exchange for the lost tooth but never mentioned her (my decision to answer all questions truthfully also included not implanting lies in the first place). Unfortunately I neglected to factor in the influences outside the home and what to say about the Fairy when someone else did.
I brushed it off by explaining that lots of people like to play the Tooth Fairy Game which involves putting a tooth under a pillow and waking up to a coin instead- doesn't that sound fun and do you want to play it? Yes OK, he agreed- if it means getting a coin.
But that wasn't the end of it. He became obsessed with the tooth and it's significance to me. Ordinary life continued as usual for most of the day but in the 10/15 minutes in between story and prayer time and drifting off to sleep it dominated his thoughts and he kept calling me back into his room again and again as he thought of yet more questions about the tooth, or questions about the answers I had given him the night before to questions about the tooth. It was exhausting. (The truth often is).
Post tooth loss, night 4, Bedtime
E: So... You'll keep my tooth. In my special box. With all my baby things.
Me: Yeah that's right.
E: Forever. Just to keep and look at.
Me: Yep that's right. Night night...
E: Why is that again?
Me: Well, one day you'll be all big and grown up and we'll look back at your tiny baby teeth and think how much you've grown. Night babe...
E: I still don't get why mummies and daddies want to keep the teeth that fall out.
Me: Well it just helps them remember how small their boys and girls used to be and it's good to think about that when they're all grown up and big and strong.
E: And where is the box where you're keeping my tooth?
Me: In my cupboard for now, but I guess one day you'll want to keep it yourself. (Stop it)
E: Really I can have it?
Me: Yes- It's your box after all. (STOP it)
E: Where will I keep it?
Me: Well I don't know. Some where in your own house I suppose.
(I said STOP it!)
Because one day you'll take all your things and leave this house
(No! Quick- use the lie! What's that one about teeth... and children... and pillows??)
...and move into a house of your own so you can take your box with you then. (Lie dammit- LIE! Tell him about the pillows!)
E: (Puzzlement giving way to anxiety) But I want to stay here with you and Daddy! For always!
Me: Cool- no problem babe. You can do that if you want to.
E: But mummies and daddies WANT their little boys and girls to get big and move away?
Me: Well, yes. Eventually.
(Oh crap. Where's the Comm+Z for this conversation?)
E: But why?
Me: Because... that's... just... what happens babe.
(Comm+Z! Comm+Z! Comm+Z!)
E: (Begins to cry) But... I don't want to be big... I just like being... your little boy... (And there you go! Well done The Truth! Now why don't you sob alongside him and screw him up even more!)
It takes everything in me not to cry. I've already given him too much of my grown up baggage. I hug and comfort him. We say another prayer about monkey and his best friend Izzy. He's soon all dozy and calm. He falls asleep quickly after that and the next night he doesn't mention the tooth at all, or call me back into his room after I've put him to bed.
But I think about it for a long time. What on Earth was I thinking? Why attempt an explanation like that? At bedtime no less!? Aaaarghhhh!
A 5 year old trying to get his head around what it will be like to leave home one day when he doesn't have the emotional reserves to cope with it is probably akin to you or me contemplating what Heaven will be like. Of course most people can cope with the abstract Yes-I'd-like-to-go-there-one-day approach, but think about it properly and pretty soon we are out of our depth because the only language we've used up until now is quite inadequate.
And this isn't about the process of getting there. That we can imagine- the practical arrangements, the balance of pain killers vs the desire for lucidity, the turning and feeding and personal care- it's unpleasant and painful alright but at least we can visualise it.
But the bit afterwards? That's just beyond what I know and can imagine. What if I don't like it and want to come back? What will my body look like? How will others recognise me and I them? How will we communicate- the Vulcan Mind meld? Where will I live? Who will I live with? What about the people I love who aren't there? Will I be upset about that or so consumed with a new reality and the face-to-faceness of Jesus that I don't care? If I don't care about the absence of certain people then what does that say about the depth of love I had for them in the first place? What about eating and sleeping and peeing? Life used to be structured around stuff like that. If we have new super improved bodies does gender as I understand it even exist anymore?? Will red still be red? I have no frame of reference for any of this stuff and it's freaking me out and I WANT TO STAY HERE INSTEAD!!
That reaction is perfectly understandable. But if I don't mature beyond it I'm the spiritual equivalent of a 40 year old recluse who lives alone, sleeps alone under the Tigger duvet of her childhood having never moved out of the home she was raised in and who doesn't even yearn for MORE.
Since that tooth conversation day all 3 of our kids have grown and matured and done all the things expected of them at each stage along the way. We still have lots of questions in our house. Sometimes distraction is used, occasionally there are difficult conversations to be had, but most commonly we google it.
I've also become a bit less precious about the baby teeth and not all of them have made it into a memory box. Some have been laundered, fallen out at school, swept onto the floor, rinsed down the plug hole, lost in the swimming pool or even swallowed. And of the ones which have made it into a memory box I can't even be completely sure if they're in the correct one.