The lies we tell our children


By L.E. Nizhnikov

Leafing through my childhood memories I can remember with amused clarity some dubious bits of wisdom imparted to me by my trusted adults. A few of these rare nuggets I accepted as truth.

To this day they cause me to think twice and second guess knowledge and experience in the face of childhood beliefs. Some were too silly or easily disprovable to be true. Others were on the fence, likely false but with just enough logic to create a small kernel of doubt — which is all a human being needs to veer them thoroughly off the course of truth.

As a child I could never understand why my parents would, ostensibly, lie to me. After all, my face never did “get stuck that way,” and when I sneeze in a room alone without anyone to say “gesundheit,” I’m pretty sure an evil spirit has never slipped down my throat.

Of course, I realize now as an adult with my own children exactly why they deviated from the truth. Though I swore I would never do such a thing myself, I can see the wisdom of why they did.

But what about when the lies turn harmful and they are no longer silly shortcuts people use to drive a lesson home?

In these strange and uncertain times we are bombarded daily with misinformation. I don’t even have to get out of bed in the morning to learn about the 17 new ways I can protect myself and my family from this novel coronavirus (none of which are based even remotely on scientific fact and almost all of which will probably put my family at terrifyingly higher risk).

So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? With lies everywhere and limited access to scientific journals and epidemiologists, how do we discern the truth and how do we transmit those truths to our children in a time of crisis?

Like our foremother Rebekah who understood the fundamental differences between Jacob and Esau from birth and raised them accordingly, I find myself differentiating the way I teach my children about COVID-19.

In any group you will find distinct personality types. Family groups are no different. My group is composed of “the pragmatic,” “the worried,” “the scientific” and “the rebellious.”

The youngest is still too small to be classified. I need to give him a few years, yet.

My pragmatist is the easiest to deal with. I can be honest with him and explain the situation in grave detail. I can answer his questions fully, without a particular emphasis beyond the cold hard facts.

My worrier is a little more complicated. He is already anxious and emotional and spent the first few days of social distancing hysterical with fear. For him I bend the truth, assuring him that even if we all contract the virus we will be unlikely to suffer negative long-term effects. I promise him we are safe if we do as we are told and wait until he goes to bed at night to Clorox-wipe our groceries while tears slip down my cheeks in fear. (He might take after me a little bit.)

My scientist is perhaps the most fun. She asks questions endlessly and expects answers replete with gory detail. She wants to understand the situation to the fullest extent that can be processed by her 6-year-old mind. I indulge her, hopeful that it will encourage her to always seek the truth.

My rebel requires both the softest touch and the hardest line. I don’t want to frighten him, but he is the child who has to be told not to lick things and thus requires a healthy, age-appropriate dose of fear regarding how viruses spread.

Of course in addition to this motley crew I am also dealing with the doubts, fears and dubious bits of information being brought into the house through other means, but raising a husband is a topic for a different article.

I suppose in the end I have different expectations for who must tell the truth and who is permitted to lie, though even this becomes confusing in times like these. I want the news media to give me the truth accompanied by hard scientific facts, but what if such a thing causes mass hysteria?

If we downplay those truths (like many in positions of power did until it was nearly too late) will we put even more lives at risk? Can we walk the line of cautious optimism keeping our vigilance high and our anxiety low?

Rebekah had the benefit of foresight to rationalize the lies she told her children and her husband. Her manipulation changed the course of Jewish history — we assume for the better, since there is no way for us to truly know. Without the gift of clairvoyance and years away from the clarity of hindsight, we can only do our best.

At least now I know everything my mother told me about handwashing was true.

L.E. Nizhnikov is a fiction writer who lives in Silver Spring, where she is a stay-at-home mother of five.

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