“How do you die, mummy?”
Bloody hell, ask me anything but that, please. I have E’s trainer in one hand, his ankle in the other, and an eye on the clock. Is it strictly necessary to have a conversation about the myriad ways a human can pop his clogs when we are due to meet friends in fifteen minutes?
“Well…” I begin, and then falter. What is an appropriate response for a three year old – sorry, three and three quarters?
“Ermm…” Now, there is a parenting approach that says you should always tell the truth. That to obscure the facts, to tell little white lies, does them no good in the long run. In theory, I totally agree with this strategy. In reality? Fuck that, I scatter lies around like toast crumbs around a toddler’s dining chair.
At one end of the lie spectrum are Cultural Lies -our deception inheritance – embedded in our shared history. These are the lies that we don’t even think are lies, but exist because it is actually quite funny for a child to get so excited about the prospect of something that they nearly wet their pants. And to tell the truth would be just sadistic:
“When is Santa going to visit, mummy?”
“Santa does not exist, we buy your presents and you know those snowy footprints on the hearth? Flour. Oh, and while we are at it, the tooth fairy is total hogwash. Deal with it.”
There are also what I call the Functional Lies – the lies you tell so that your life, your day, or your shopping trip does not grind to a halt. Such as: “Oh dear, the Bob the Builder ride is broken. Never mind.” Or: “If you don’t sit properly in your car seat and the police see you, they will put you in jail.” As parents, we all need a few Functionals to oil the cogs of our day.
The truth can on occasion, it seems, be a tad over-rated. Pop onto any online forum where a parent raises the knotty problem of what you call willies and fannies in the presence of your toddler and debate is provoked like an angry wasp in an upside down cup. The majority employ the Super-Sub Lie – a replacement word or phrase to soften the harsh linguistic blow that would otherwise be dealt to their innocent ears. (Although I fear that referring to your fanny as a hotdog bun, as one online mum stated, could cause problems when you are in the queue for lunch). Opposed to the Super-Sub Liars are the hardcore truth-sayers. For them, it can only be penis and vagina. I am sorry, but if my son refers to his willy as a penis before the age of sixteen, I don’t think I will ever recover.
And so to Cover Up lies, deployed when your darling offspring hears something inappropriate. It is amazing that a boy who cannot hear the request “please wash your hands for lunch” when you are standing two foot away from him can hear a gentle “fuck” when you are in the next room. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t as gentle as I thought, but I did stub my toe really hard. And how was I to know that he was no longer in the next room, but actually standing right behind me? I tell you, that boy could have a bloody career as a ninja assassin.
“What did you say, mummy?”
“Oh, Right. I said… duck.”
“Well… I was just thinking of ducks.”
“Because… look, have you washed your hands yet? If you have dirty hands when you eat it will make you sick for a week.”
(Note the last-minute use of a Functional Lie).
So, back to my son’s question of how we die. I ponder the use of a lie, for speed and an easy life. I am very, very tempted to reply to his question by telling him that you die if you don’t tidy your bedroom , but just about resist. I consider telling him that when you get old, you have to take ticket like the ones at the deli counter and just wait your turn. But I don’t. Most uncharacteristically, I decide to tell the truth.
“You die when you are very, very, very old.” I throw in several ‘verys’ as I don’t want him to think that his own parents, who must seem pretty ancient to him, are going to spring off this mortal coil at any minute.
Silence falls as I put his left trainer on. I think I may have just got away with it.
“How else?” Bollocks. Now what am I going to say? I think about another way of dying that I can explain without putting the fear of god into him and giving him nightmares for the next ten years. Obviously, all I can think of is horrific accidents involving large agricultural machines or gruesome stabbings in a dark, cold alleyways.
“Erm… if you have a very bad car accident, you might die.” Shitting hell, what did I say that for? The poor buggar is going to be so petrified he will never get in the car again. I am not sure I can cope with this truth malarkey. My pants may not be on fire, but I am way out of my depth here.
Okay, enough now. I employ the time-honoured strategy beloved of truth-dodging parents everywhere:
“Do you want some chocolate buttons?”