My father was 26 years older than my mother. He was 58 when they married, a first marriage for him. He was 59 when I was born. He was only five years younger than my grandfather and three years younger than my grandmother.
When I was five or six, my mom got sick. I was scared but comforted myself by saying that only old people died. My parents decided that it would not be a good idea to tell me that my Dad was ‘old’ – he was 64 or 65 at the time, ancient to a little kid.
They made up a story about my parents’ ages. They took ten years off my mother’s age, since she was 33 when she had me and not a young woman in her twenties like most moms of the day. They took 26 years off of my father’s age and said that they were only ten years apart. So when I was ten, I thought my parents were 33 and 43 — not 43 and 69!
When I was 12, a friend’s father read one of my dad’s books. He also read the biographical section on the back cover flap. This said that my father was born in 1891, which would have made him 71 years old. My friend told me and I checked out the book cover. I was appalled that such an egregious error had not been caught on a major publication. I informed my parents that they had to contact the publisher immediately and correct the error.
My parents had to confess their actual ages. I was in shock. I was also devastated that I had been lied to my whole life. We had celebrated fake birthdays for both parents every year. Even my grandparents had been in on the big lie. I felt manipulated and humiliated.
It got worse. A few months later, in a 7th grade Ethics class, we talked about the issue of ‘old people’, ‘senior citizens’ – people who were over 65. We talked about nursing homes and the obligation to care for the elderly. I suddenly realized that this meant my father, who was already in his 70’s, as well as my grandparents. I remember struggling not to cry in class.
I don’t advocate telling big lies to children. I think if I had grown up knowing my parents’ true ages, it would have been natural to me. No big deal. By lying, my parents made into a big deal. I became obsessed with people’s ages and it lasted for several years.
Lies like those my parents told me made me feel betrayed and I never fully trusted my parents again. I didn’t feel my parents had confidence in me. Kids need to know their parents believe they are strong enough to handle the truth. I think lying to your kids to ‘protect’ them, tells kids that you think they need protecting from the world. It makes kids doubt their own ability to cope and creates insecure and suspicious children.
I’m a big fan of truth-telling. I’m not rude, but I try to be honest as much as possible. For example, I didn’t automatically tell my children that everything they did was amazing. I’d tell them if I thought their art work or school project wasn’t the best they’d ever done. I believed they needed to learn to deal with criticism. I also thought they needed to learn that they couldn’t just phone it in and still get super praise.
I may have ended up being too honest with my kids, but i think it’s better than deceit.