Although the show, “To Tell the Truth” (CBS) predates me, I remember seeing it when it ran in syndication in the ‘70’s. The show featured a panel of celebrities attempting to correctly identify a person, sworn “to tell the truth”, who had an unusual occupation or experience. The celebrities questioned that person along with two imposters, but they were allowed to lie. The show concluded when the votes were cast, and the host would ask, “Will the real [person] please stand up?” For some reason, I loved this show, and always found its premise both amusing and intriguing. After all, it was the first time I watched someone purposefully lie….with no harm done.
“Please don’t pull it out. PLEASE!” Ethan, Charlie, Savanna and I were recently at their bi-annual check-up at the pediatric dentist. Charlie had already lost several teeth, including one in the front. The other tooth was now quite sharp and hanging by a thread in the center of his mouth. It had even cut his lip overnight. The thought of having anyone unnaturally pull out his tooth provoked sheer terror in our six-year-old son. Charlie’s dentist had already mentioned aloud the possibility of removing the tooth. After seeing his alarmed reaction, he gave me a look that read, “Shall I do it?” I paused, reflecting my own childhood experience. It was around 1976, and I was sitting with my two brothers in the back seat of our brown Chrysler station wagon. “Dad, Mom—look! My front tooth is loose!” I shouted. The next thing I knew, my older brother Peter took one quick glance at my funky grin and said, “I’ll help you out, Meg.” At that, he punched out my tooth with his bare hand. To this day, I am certain that Peter was actually proud of himself for “helping me out.”
“Go ahead,” I told the dentist. Charlie shrieked. “No, Mommy, no!” He began to wriggle in his chair so persistently that it was impossible for the dentist to carry out my instructions. And then it occurred to me. Just a little fib won’t hurt. “Charlie, there is a piece of meat stuck behind your front tooth. Let the dentist take it. That’s probably why your tooth has been stuck in your mouth–the meat got caught in its way.” Charlie sat back in his chair. “Okay,” he said, bracing himself. The dentist proceeded to take the “meat” out and wouldn’t you know it, the tooth came out too. Mission accomplished.
That night, Charlie asked me if there really was a Tooth Fairy. I paused. The day had been rough for him, why start telling him the truth about that now? “Of course there is a Tooth Fairy,” I said outwardly grinning, yet inwardly dreading the day he would learn the truth and resent me for my deception.
Later, I reflected on the morning’s events. Before John and I had any babies, I used to fantasize about how I would dress my kids, but not how I would parent them. Even after we had Charlie, almost three years after Ethan, I never stopped to ponder what kind of fibs I might be tempted to tell them one day. Then we decided to adopt Savanna, and I had to ask myself, when is withholding the truth innocuous, and when is it not? How would we discuss Savanna’s place in our family?
I can count on John’s ten fingers how many times people asked us if we were going to tell her about the fact that she was adopted. In this instance, unlike the Tooth Fairy, I didn’t even consider it a choice. As I wrote in my prior blog post, In the Genes, “Before John and I adopted Savanna in Southern California, we made a conscious decision to ensure that her adoption story from inception would be completely transparent to her; the adoption would be simply part of her greater life story. Having heard horror stories in my time, I was adamant that there would be no surprise waiting for her whenever she reached the right age to hear that news. To do so would be the equivalent of hiding Ethan and Charlie’s hands post birth with mittens until they were at the perfect age to handle hearing about their reduced digits.”
Now that she’s five and a half, John and I continue to discuss Savanna’s special story with her, and with her brothers. I like to tell Savanna that she and I were both so lucky when she was being made in her biological mother’s belly. “Why Mommy?” I turn to her, “Because sweetheart, you were born in beautiful, sunny California, and I didn’t have to gain 35 pounds with you like I did with the boys!” I often thank her for that and she responds proudly,“You’re welcome Mommy!” I am convinced that while John and I could have held off, this particular story was worth letting her know about from the beginning. The best lesson I took from this experience is that while lots of white lies can get you through the day and around awkward topics, the one conversation that always deserves the truth, is the one about who we are.
Charlie arrived home last week, announcing that he was excited for St. Patrick’s Day to arrive. “Why, Charlie? We are not Irish.” “Mom, it doesn’t matter. The Leprechaun will come anyway and bring me a chocolate treat if I write him a letter!” He was visibly excited. Bracing myself, I thought it was time to set the record straight, given we are neither Irish nor Catholic. Recalling an embarrassing moment several years ago when Ethan decided to tell his good friend at school that there was no Santa Claus, I treaded carefully. “Charlie, honey. The Leprechaun is not real. But even if it is, we are not Irish, so it won’t come to visit our house anyway.” “Okay Mom, but I think he is real. I am going to leave my letter for him to come, just in case.” Later that night, John and I chuckled together over the the passionate and friendly letter Charlie had drafted, and I realized something. Just because you choose to tell your kid the truth, doesn’t mean that he or she is willing to accept it. Nevertheless, it was time for Charlie to taste reality and not chocolate. When he woke up on St. Patty’s Day, although the letter was left outside his door, the Leprechaun had skipped the Zucker house.
Eventually, we’ll get to the Tooth Fairy….no harm done.