When I was much younger, I made a promise to my future children.I would never answer their questions with the despised dismissiveness I so commonly received to my own (incessant) inquiries: It’s nothing you need to worry about. Or, Because that’s the way it is. Or the accursed, You’re not old enough to understand.
As a parent, I have done my best to uphold that promise. My wife and I adhere to a policy of, if they are astute enough to ask a challenging question, we should try and answer it as honestly as possible.
Yes, the answers need to be age appropriate, but that differs for every child at every age, and with every topic.
You don’t always get it right.
And sometimes you get it very, very wrong.
Several years ago, I was driving with my son, Sam, who was, at the time, nine years old. His class had been assigned The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and he was reading the book in the back seat. I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered. The news story was a gripping one about teenaged-girl runaways who wound up as prostitutes. The story was poignant, heartbreaking, and sublimely human, but not exactly fodder for nine-year-old ears. I kept checking the rear-view mirror to see if Sam had tuned in to the radio, but he appeared just as involved in his book as I was hooked on the story of these teens.
Just to be sure, I asked, “Sam, is the radio bothering you?”
He grunted, never taking his eyes from the page.
So I listened as one of the ex-prostitutes, whose hummingbird voice belied the savagery of her story, recounted her time on the streets in harrowing detail, including turning tricks for drugs, which the girls would smoke with their johns.
The story ended. A minute passed.
Then Sam looked up from his book.
“Dad, what’s a john?”
“Why do you ask?” I inquired, hoping, just maybe, he was talking about something else.
“Because it said she was smoking in the johns,” he answered, his level gaze indicating I would not be getting off the hook this time.
“So you’re talking about the story,” I sighed, waving a finger hopelessly at the radio speakers.
There I was, writhing on the horns of a parenting dilemma. How to answer the question without getting into a discussion of topics I was not sure he was old enough to handle? But to dodge would paint myself with the same brush as all the grownups who had so infuriated me when I was young. So without pausing to consider if there might be a third way, a better way, I blundered onward.
“Do you remember,” I asked, invoking a recent conversation we had had on the very basics of sex, “about how a man and a woman have to be together to make a baby?”
A slow nod, a furrowed brow. What did this have to do with his question about the story?
“I have to talk to you about something very bad. It’s when a man pays a woman money to be with him in the way we talked about. That’s called prostitution, and it’s wrong, and it’s also illegal.
(No! No he did NOT just say that! To a nine-year-old? What is he thinking?)
“There’s a slang term for men who pay money to prostitutes. They are called johns.”
(Honey! You have got to read this!You think I say boneheaded things to our kids? You could be married to this DadZone guy!)
“So, anyway, Sam. When the young woman said that they used to smoke with the johns, that’s what she was talking about.”
There followed a long silence of deepening discomfort. Sam’s face in the rearview mirror was inscrutable. I felt like I should sum things up, but really, what could I say?
(Nothing! Which is what you should have said in the first place! Fool!)
Finally Sam said, “I’m pretty sure it said smoking in the johns, Dad.”
Really? I had just laid this heavy subject matter on him and he was arguing word choice? “I promise you, Sam, it said smoking with the johns.” Finality. Firmness. Parental authority, for the win!
Whereupon he opened The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, flipped to a page, and read in stentorian voice, “… Imogene spent the whole time smoking cigars in one of the johns in the ladies’ room…” He snapped the book closed.
“Ah,” I said dully, my tongue suddenly thick with my own idiocy.
“You mean that story.”
I practically tumbled over myself to hasten that, “Of course, john is just a slang word for bathroom.”
After another long silence, Sam said, “So, what were you talking about?”
“Just something on the radio,” I said airily, now twirling my finger like a magic wand to make the whole conversation disappear.
He let out a long-held breath. “That’s good. ’Cause I’m telling you, Dad, if all that stuff was in this book, I completely missed it!”
So there you have it. An object lesson in how good intentions run off the rail. Making a commitment to honor your children’s questions is a fine thing, but it’s also important to make sure you are listening to the question that wants answering.
Sometimes the answer really is as simple as “bathroom.”
And of course, “It’s nothing you need to worry about,” might have worked pretty well, too.