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Telling Kids the Whole Truth
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Telling Kids the Whole Truth

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe in family.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.


This week for our series This I Believe, we have an essay sent in by listener Martha Leathe of Eliot, Maine. Leathe has taught every grade from first to eighth and shes currently a school board member.

Heres our series curator independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: Martha Leathes belief is derived from her experience with children, not so much the ones she has taught, but her own. The task of raising children is often a test of belief as parents come to realize that their actions provide the lessons that children assimilate.

Heres Martha Leathe with her essay for This I Believe.

Ms. MARTHA LEATHE (mother, teacher, school board member): Several weeks ago, I got a call from a good friend whose husband had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Do we tell the kids? she asked. Absolutely, I answered. Do we use the C-word? Yes, I think you do, I said. The boys deserve to know the truth, however heartbreaking it is.

Adults always insist that children be honest, but how many of us are honest with our kids, particularly about the tough stuff: death, sex, corruption, our own failings? I believe in telling children the truth. I believe this is vital for their understanding of the world, their confidence, and the development of their morals and values.

This does not mean kids need to be unnecessarily frightened or told more than they can handle. When our son was six, he tagged along while his older sister got her nose-ring changed. In the shop, he sifted through a big bin of brightly packaged condoms. What are these? he said. Condoms, I replied. What are they for? he asked. Briefly, I explained what condoms are, precisely where you put them, and how they work. Oh, he said, clearly disappointed, I think that they werent candy. It wasnt a lot of information, but it was the truth.

Many people think they are protecting children when they spare them the truth. I disagree. I believe children possess an enviable ability to cope with and make sense of what even adults find confounding. When we are honest with children, we also validate their intuition. If we can admit that yes, people can be mean, Grandma does have a drinking problem, divorce is painful, we allow children to trust their gut. They can begin to recognize and rely on their own inner voice, which will speak to them throughout their lives.

Kids also have an uncanny sense of when something is up. They realize when were uneasy; they can tell when were lying. One night, I was in the car with our two oldest daughters. It was dark and cozy, the perfect time for a heart-to-heart conversation. Out of the blue, one of our kids said, so Mom, have you ever smoked pot? I stalled a little, but the girls persisted. They had me and they knew it. So I told them the truth, albeit somewhat abridged. What ensued was a frank discussion about the lures and perils of drugs. I believe my honesty was much more effective than warnings or platitudes.

These same daughters are in college now. We have two other kids still at home. And while I have made plenty of mistakes as a parent, I do have clear and open relationships with each of our kids. I believe that my being truthful with our children has paid off, because Im pretty sure that now they are honest with me.

Mr. ALLISON: Martha Leathe, with her essay for This I Believe. Leathe told us that being honest with her kids has taken practice. If youd like to contribute an essay to our series, please visit our website at For This I Believe, Im Jay Allison.

SHAPIRO: Jay Allison is co-editor, with Dan Gediman, John Gregory, and Viki Merrick, of the book "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women."

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