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You can’t protect children by lying to them – the truth will hurt less

Parents try to protect children from distressing realities, such as illness, death or divorce. But if you don’t talk to them about the difficult stuff, they worry alone …

Meg Rosoff and daughter

Meg Rosoff and her daughter, Gloria. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

About a decade ago, a friend I knew and cared about deeply told me that she was having an affair with her child’s best friend’s father. “My God,” I said, swallowing hard. “That’s complicated.”

It was complicated all right. The families lived practically next door and were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. But neither marriage was good. And my friend swore that this was the real thing.

The problem was her daughter. She worshipped her mum, watched her like a hawk. And though she was only six, she was one of those strange, precocious children who gets inside adult heads and roams around, looking for stuff. Like the fact that her mother was madly in love with someone other than her dad.

“You can’t keep lying to her,” I said.

“No, no,” she assured me. “It’s not a problem. She doesn’t suspect a thing.”

I looked at her. “She knows. She doesn’t know what she knows, but she knows.”

And she did. If ever a child knew something was wrong with her family, it was Evie. She had developed a heartbreaking look of puzzlement in the company of her mother, searching her face for answers.

I notice those children now, the ones people lie to. Like all children, they are studying the world, struggling to learn the rules of engagement. Except that, for them, life doesn’t make sense because their instincts are negated. So they begin to twist in an attempt to accommodate a world full of half-truths.

An American woman visiting friends in London a few days after the school massacre in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, asked the friend’s family (two adults, three teenagers) not to refer to Newtown for the duration of their visit and not to turn on the news in case her children might overhear distressing stories. “We’re going to talk to them about it when we feel they can handle it,” she said. Her children were 13 and nine.

I know about lies because at an important juncture in my own family life, my husband and I did not tell our daughter the whole truth, with difficult and enduring consequences.

I had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that killed my youngest sister and for which my middle sister had just finished treatment. My daughter, Gloria, was seven. “I have cancer. But don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” we told her, failing to take into account her presence at my sister’s funeral a few years earlier. My husband and I didn’t say much more. Gloria didn’t ask any questions. To be honest, we were relieved. It was not at all definite that I would survive, and that’s not a conversation you want to have with a child. I didn’t even have it with my husband.

I went to hospital. And my daughter observed quietly when I returned, post-surgery, with a drain, stitches and bloody bandages, unable to lift my arm more than a few inches.

A week later, there was a second operation, followed by chemotherapy. I looked and felt awful.

It was about six months later that I realised two things. First, that although we’d been all jolly and casual at home about my illness, the other people in her life – her teachers and friends’ parents – were, quite innocently, showing nakedly shocked faces. “I hear your mother has cancer,” they whispered in voices that expressed to a sentient seven-year-old that something very awful indeed was going on. In addition, by not explaining the situation properly, we somehow neglected to make it clear that I was so ill because of the treatment rather than the disease. That was enormous.

Think about it. She heard I had cancer. Within days I was hospitalised. I went bald, lost weight, looked sick and exhausted, my right arm was covered with streaky bruises from the intravenous infusions. She had seen my sister in a similar condition a few months before she died.

Gloria, logically, thought that I was dying.

My husband and I didn’t set out to lie, but we certainly didn’t tell the whole truth. We didn’t tell because she didn’t ask. She didn’t ask because she sensed that it was a difficult subject.

Yet “protecting her” from what was going on turned out to be a gross underestimation of our child’s ability to measure atmosphere, to absorb pain and doubt and worry and convert it into a perfectly reasonable (but wrong) explanation.

Over the next decade, I learned that lies of omission can have consequences as devastating as “real” lies, the ones where you decide not to tell a child he’s adopted or that her sister is really her mother.

During those years, my bold, confident daughter became fearful. She began to experience night terrors, strange waking states in which she’d seem unable to connect and I’d be unable to console her. She became frightened of the dark, frightened of going to sleep, terrified of being the last person awake in the house.

Nowadays, as a writer of books for children and teenagers, I meet a lot of kids between 12 and 18 when I go into schools to talk about books. In those sessions, I started asking what frightened them. Spiders, they said, or death. Or someone close dying. “What about being the last person awake in the house?” I asked. And the reaction of the majority astonished me.

“That’s really scary,” they said.

It’s scary, I discovered, because it means you’re responsible. There’s no adult to help if a burglar comes in, or a monster; if there’s an emergency. It resonates with a bigger fear, the fear that adults won’t always be around to protect you. That your parents will die. That you, someday, will die.

I have no hard evidence that Gloria suffered so badly, and for so long, because of our failure to be more open with her about my cancer. But she remembers being very frightened when I went to hospital, not knowing if I’d come back. And she kept the terror to herself.

There are nights at the theatre you never forget, and one of them was a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the National with a then unknown (to me) actor called Simon Russell Beale. He played Oswald, whose father has died of syphilis after a life of alcoholism and debauchery. In the play, his mother sends Oswald away so he won’t ever know the truth about his father, and, particularly, so that he won’t ever follow the same path.

And yet he does. Ghosts always reads to me as a play about the futility of attempting to suppress difficult truths – how it does the opposite of rendering them powerless. The unsaid festers and grows until it infects everyone with poison, or in the case of Oswald and his father, syphilis.

I asked a counsellor who works at Great Ormond Street hospital with young transplant patients how he handles talking to very ill children and traumatised families.

“There are parents who can’t even bear to tell a child he’ll be operated on the next day,” he said. “And that’s really damaging. They think they’re protecting the child, but what they’re really doing is protecting themselves from their own appalling fear of loss.”

Parental fear underlies a great deal of the dishonesty perpetrated in the name of protecting children. I couldn’t survive if something happened to you so I must protect you at all costs, parents think. That’s not about the child, it’s about the parent.

I once wrote about teen suicide, and a lovely, articulate teenage girl emailed in response, saying she understood what it felt like to self harm and attempt suicide. She did both on a regular basis. “Have you talked to your parents?” I asked.

“I tried to tell my mother,” she said, “but she started to cry. She’s been under a lot of pressure with my depression and I don’t want to upset her more.”

 

Lies lead to more lies. The child who senses that the parent can’t cope with her vulnerability will hide the truth. Which leads to a situation in which communication shuts down altogether. Not that the pain of children can always be solved. It can’t. Any more than it can for adults. But the cases that chill me to the marrow are the “happy, well-adjusted” children who suddenly hang themselves, leaving desperate messages behind. What’s hidden will grow into a monster.

There is a theory that children’s literature should uphold the idyll of childhood, offering charming scenarios and happy endings to protect the innocent from life’s harsh realities. But children have extraordinary antennae for the things no one will explain. If a child has enough imagination to conjure dragons and monsters under the bed, he has enough imagination to figure out that something adults won’t talk about must be truly terrifying. Sex, for instance, divorce or death. And that’s where literature can help – by exploring the scary stuff with insight and, on a good day, wisdom.

Gloria’s wonderful primary school headteacher once told me that at about age seven to nine, kids start to change, emotionally. They start to separate from their parents, start thinking about death, worrying about being grown up. When I was about that age, I lay in bed, night after night, frozen with terror at the concept of eternal nothingness. I told no one, so no one told me that it’s possible to combat the fear of death with a life well-lived, that death can be a relief and a release, not just a terrifying conclusion.

If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.

I wish we’d talked to my daughter about my cancer. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid. It took a very long time for her to lose her fear of the dark, of being awake when all the grownups are asleep. Sixteen now, she’s wonderfully independent, funny, thoughtful and brave. Do you ever think about me having cancer? I ask her now. Does it ever worry you? “Not really,” she says. “But I worry about getting cancer myself.” That, given our family history, is perfectly reasonable.

And what about Evie and her mother? My friend came out with the truth soon after we spoke. Both couples have since divorced, both sets of children travel between the various families and everyone involved seems to have reconciled with reasonable equanimity to the change.

Give a child an unpalatable truth and she will figure out a way to process it. But “protect” her and the ghosts will whisper in her ear.

 

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What Happens When We Give Writers Two Weeks Before a Superbowl? HOMOPHOBIA!

being-gay-in-the-nfl-the-secrets-the-culture-the-pressure-the-fear-of-coming-out-and-the-changing-attitudes-feature1Oh for God’s sake. “We can’t have gay’s running around in our locker rooms?” Well, you have female journalists in them.

What in the hell are you talking about? You really think an NFL player is going to fear for his genitals because another professional in the next locker happens to have another sexual proclivity? You think he’s going to be so turned on by your steroid infused bulk that he cant control himself and is going to violate you while your on the bench press?

The rest of humanity seems to get along pretty well with communal weight rooms, and showers. Are you so daft as to think that in SF bay area we don’t run into (some openly) gay people at the gym every day?

Frankly, the gay men I know have far too much taste to embarrass themselves by lowering their standards to meet the common football player. Certainly not in a locker room.

 

 

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A Customer Service Story

by Mike McCartney  Sooteyeout Publishing

How many hours a day do you put in running your business? 14, 15?

There is a little coffee roasting shop in San Jose I go to on weekend mornings. The old guy who runs it hires only young girls and has them dress like Hooters. Today there was only one person behind the counter. She was running back and forth doing everything from making drinks to making coffee urns to taking orders and running the cash register. There was a long line across the whole shop.

The old man who owns the place was standing watching her. He ran out to tell another merchant from the shopping center who walked in that he would get her coffee when it slowed down, and ignored the rest of the line, she was special I guess.

He went behind the counter and hovered over the poor girl for a minute and then came down by the corner of the shop by me and hid, so he could watch from there. I asked him: “Why don’t you help her?”

He answered, “I am.”

I left and got coffee somewhere else, and thought afterwards: “He does not even know how to make the coffee drinks he sells or how to run his own cash register.”

There are just time that you pray for the likes of Gordon Ramsey to walk in and start swearing at people like that.

– Fresh Flakes – Frank Zappa

They don’t do no good
They never be workin’
When they oughta should
They waste your time
They’re wastin’ mine
California’s got the most of them
Boy, they got a host of them
Swear t’God they got the most
At every business on the coast…

“I’m a moron ‘n’ this is my wife
She’s frosting a cake
With a paper knife
All what we got here’s
American made
It’s a little bit cheesey,
But it’s nicely displayed
Well we don’t get excited when it
Crumbles ‘n’ breaks
We just get on the phone
And call up some Flakes
They rush on over
‘N’ wreck it some more
‘N’ we are so dumb
They’re linin’ up at our door…”

“Well, the toilet went crazy
Yesterday afternoon
The plumber he says
“Never flush a tampoon!”
This great information
Cost me half a week’s pay
And the toilet blew up
Later on the next day ay-eee-ay
Blew up the next day WOO-OOO..”

* Flake Response—

“We are millions ‘n’ millions
We’re coming to get you
We’re protected by unions
So don’t let it upset you
Can’t escape the conclusion
It’s probably God’s Will
That civilization
Will grind to a standstill
And we are the people
Who will make it all happen
While yer children is sleepin’,
Yer puppy is crappin’
You might call us Flakes
Or something else you might coin us
But we know you’re so greedy
That you’ll probably join us…..”

 

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Merry Christmas to All of Us

As we progress through the holiday season it is so easy to get caught up in our own personal goals: dinner with the family, grab those presents, make sure we have an office party, have the neighbors over for egg nogg. I find myself literally running over people to get to the store and buy all the things that will make a great time for my friends and family.
How many times in life can we have the goal of making people happy only to plow through everyone else that “gets in our way?”
If there is one lesson I can take from this life, let it be the one where I slow down and smell the roses. Let it be where I stop and talk with people in the store instead of charging through the isles to get in line first. Let it be putting my favorite television show (even if it is the Superbowl) on pause when a neighbor needs to talk. Let it be where I listen to my mate with honest appreciation, even though I was in the middle of something else.
Otherwise, life ends up being what passes you by, when you were too busy making plans!

 

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Love is the Decision of an Adult

Love is the Decision of an Adult

I don’t remember where that quote came from, so I thought I’d look it up.  Can’t find it anywhere.  It feels good to know that there are some things that one cannot “Google.”  What does manifest itself is that after 6 brief years with my wife,  we love each other more every day.  Why?

An old and dear friend of mine, although she can be somewhat of a brat at times, taught me a cruel and beautiful lesson:  quit looking for the right person, and BE the right person. Love for another, although part of the general universe and the omnipresent Agape Love of The Creator, comes from within.  I am able to love another in direct proportion to my ability to love myself.

After being dismissed from by my ex-wife after 16 years of marriage because she didn’t “feel like” being married any more, I had the obligatory period of mourning.  Aside from the fact that I had been cast out of the house that I had inhabited for some 22 years, it was the loss of my family.  My girls were left in the care and nurturing of my ex’s new boyfriend, and the family holidays no longer required my presence.  It was a great time of self-pity and morbid reflection, followed by a resolve that it was indeed not all my fault, and that there was a self in there somewhere worth saving.

Figuring out that there was something to offer to the world was half the battle.  The next thing that came to mind was that it was imperative that this wonder be shared with a significant “other.”  What wiring the Universe, “God” if you will, put in us to make us feel that we need a mate is a great mystery, but for many it is irrefutable.  To me, life is at its fullest when being shared.  To this end began my summer of love via Match.com.  I was determined that my life was not going to be lived alone.  It never occurred to me that I was really never alone, and that God, the Universe, and soooooo many wonderful people were all around me, but off I went in search for the “right” person.

Over the course of the summer I met and “dated” probably thirty or forty different ladies.  A couple of times I felt the feelings of infatuation that manifest in the ways of youth:  dizzy dancing way I feel, weak in the knees, etc.  It was the second time that happened that the realization came to me that it was not about the women that I was with, because they were entirely different.  Upon reflection, the women that I have really loved and felt that way about throughout my life have had very few similarities.  That wonderful dizzy dancing way I feel is just that.  It is the dizzy dancing way I feel.

Love for another, although part of the general universe and the omnipresent Agape love of The Creator, comes from within.  I am able to love another in direct proportion to my ability to love myself.  The past couple of days have been very satisfying for me professionally:  I have a couple of clients that are really listening to my advice, and empowering me to be really creative and productive.  That is always a great feeling.  When my wife comes home at night there is no insecurity or self-pity to get in the way or our enjoyment of each other.

Giving of one’s self is the most satisfying aspect of a relationship.  Whether it is knowing your children will finally appreciate you when they “grow up” and not clinging to them when they do, or simply knowing when to say “that’s great dear, you go have fun” in general.   My wife is a senior executive in a global corporate travel management enterprise; therefore travel is a major factor in our relationship.  She also has many close friends and a huge family, all of which is very healthy and great.  I am envious, as both of my parents have long since passes, and my only siblings are half sisters that are a great deal older than I.  Mary is gone lots with her friends, and my life has evolved to be more introspective and solitary.  There are many great friends and activities in my life, just not as often as she is gone.  I still take great pride and joy in seeing her thrive and be able to take advantage of her many outside opportunities.  It is never healthy to have all of one’s eggs in one relational basket.  That is why it is so common to see one spouse pass away almost immediately after the other.

I have a deathly fear of heights.  I get dizzy at the top of a step-ladder.  It showed its head a few times in my youth, like at the top of the Eifel Tower, but really didn’t manifest itself totally until I suffered a severe concussion in a snowmobile accident (apparently they are not meant to jump 30 foot double motocross hills).  Mary, not keeping my phobia at the top of her mind at all times, got this wonderful opportunity to spend a couple of nights at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco.  Thinking that this would be a wonderful and romantic weekend for us in The City, she never thought to enquire as to the vertical parameters of the event.  Being aware of my own limitations, I made some queries, and found that the Hotel occupies floors 37 through 48 of a tower that looks down on the Transamerica Pyramid in downtown San Francisco.  Needless to say, I had to tell her to have a wonderful time in the five-star accommodations, while my own humble residence for the weekend will be a few blocks (and several hundred feet in elevation) down the street.

The examples could go on and on.  We’re going to visit her parents in Vancouver WA for Thanksgiving, and now were going back again at Christmas because all of her brothers and sisters will be there.  It happens to be a financial burden that was not expected at this time of year, but the joy in her face made it more than worth it.  The list is endless and it couldn’t be any sweeter.  I’m quite sure hers is twice as long with me.  She wakes up every morning before I do and puts a cloth over my eyes so that her reading lamp doesn’t disturb me.  The point is that we made a commitment to love and honor each other, and that is what has made it work.

The more each of us sacrifices and gives, the more we love ourselves.  It is a phenomenon that has existed in fable and fact for eons.  The more we love ourselves, the more we are able to love others, and I love her more every day.

 

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Do the Next Right Thing, No Matter How Much It Hurts, and You Will Feel Amazing!

Back when I was working with CityTeam, a local non-profit, we had lots of interaction with professional athletes as donors.  It was the heyday of the 1980’s 49ers and lots of hall of fame players were very active in philanthropy.  There was Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, Merton Hanks, Jerry Rice, and Joe Montana.  In our group the “old man” who had been around the longest and known most of these guys was Don Pitts.

I had heard that he made several t-shirts for a benefit, and had Merton Hanks sign them.  I had just attended a signing with Jerry Rice and had him sign a football and a Wheaties box with his photo on it.  Over the years my friends had given me a signed Jerry Rice 49er game helmet, his SF Jersey, a couple of game balls, etc. so the Wheaties box was no big thing to me at the time…. Or so I thought.

At the prospect of giving up anything “Jerry” my kids whined a little, but to be honest it was my decision, and me having the second thoughts.  After all, a Jerry anything was worth far more than a Merton anything, and Don had a stack of the T-shirts.  I informed him that the box was not available.

Being the gentleman Don is, he said nothing and gave me a couple of the T-shirts anyhow.  The years went by, my wife and I were divorced, the man-cave was disbanded, all of my 49er trivia somehow dissipated and moved into my much smaller (because it has to double as a sound studio) garage.  Every time I went into the studio to play music, which was quite often, I would see the Wheatie box and think of Don.  There was always an accompanying pang of guilt, and a firm commitment to try to get hold of him and give him his box.

The guilt got a little worse every time I thought of him, his kindness, and my own selfishness.  The phone call to the people he had worked with to see if he could be located was never made.  The times that the guilt pricked away at me are too numerous to count.  It wasn’t until one of my friends actually LinkedIn with Don that the “update” came over my computer stating that Don was now friends with  Mike, and that the God of my understanding was putting him in front of me for a decision.

Don was contacted and graciously said that yes, indeed he would still very much appreciate my sending him the Wheatie box, settling my 11 year old debt.  He had never said a word to me about it, which probably added to my torture. Why is it that sometimes it takes an act of God to get us to do the right thing?

The simple act of going down to get a box to mail this thing to Don has made me feel as though the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.  If such a simple thing can have such an effect on my view of myself, how many other things can we think of that are things we can “set right?”  Have we shorted someone on a bonus due, refused to pay a commission or a referral, carried a grudge, backstabbed someone, or took home an extra ream of paper from work without asking the boss?

These things affect our karma, and how we regard ourselves.  Together they can form an unpardonable weight.  Each acts like a tiny stone in the backpack we carry around with us every day.   Empty that pack and you will walk much taller.

 

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