The Lying Game

A Jason manford comment made me think recently. (I know, it’s surprising.)

The quote was a version of the following: That when an adult asks what he thinks happens after death he says he doesn’t know but probably nothing. When a kid asks the same, he can’t help but talk about heaven and angels and fluffy clouds.

And I was so grateful to have a faith. Not because I think I’m better than anyone else, or that my answer has more validity than yours, but because I believe in absolute honesty with my son. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things he doesn’t need to know. But if you listen to their questions carefully, most children want an answer you can give in an age appropriate way. When a three year old asks where babies come from, the answer ‘Mummy’s tummy’ will normally suffice. When they point to a man sleeping rough on the street and ask why he’s asleepĀ on the floor, your child probably won’t question you further if you tell them he doesn’t have a house. And if they do question further? Well then that’s ok too. I’m comfortable to keep giving information layer by layer until their curiosity is satisfied. I see it as a privilege actually.

But I wouldn’t know how to begin to look a child in the eyes and tell them that there is nothing else but this world. To tell them that grandpa has been buried in the ground and that’s it. If that’s really what I believed, that this world is all we have, that our actions are meaningless outside of the eighty or so years on earth we are given, I would not only be at a loss for answers to my children, but I think I’d find it pretty hard to get out of bed myself.

Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does tragedy strike the most worthy of us? Why do some people have to live with illness, or poverty, or heartbreak? The answer that the world is random, that things just occur for no discernible reason is just not good enough, even for me, let alone for an inquisitive child whose favourite word is why.

But truthfully, if I COULD look myself in the mirror and accept those facts as random and meaningless, I would try and explain those beliefs to my children too. We want to protect our kids from painful truths, so we try and sugarcoat things. I get that. But in my world, where I’m not even that comfortable with the tooth fairy, (unless everyone concerned is very clear it’s a game, and it’s all done with lots of heavy winking and tones of jest to make that really evident) I’m not interested in putting an icing glaze on the big issues.

I saw a forum conversation recently about how to explain death to a 3 year old. The answers were really helpful to the original poster, but I read the entire thread in my usual judgemental way, and was left unsettled when I finished. “We told our son that grandpa lives on the moon.” “We told our daughter that auntie Beth is a star now, and then we chose a star for them to look out for so they could wave at her.” “We told our kids that their great grandma moved to Australia, which is really far away so we won’t be able to see her any more. After all, why upset them?” “Our twins were only just three, so we just told them that grandma was feeling too poorly to see them – after a while they stopped asking.”

I don’t doubt that these answers cause less upset in the short term, and maybe by the time they realise you are lying to them, (because that’s what you’re doing, it’s not sugarcoating, it’s lying) the immediate pain of the persons passing is over, or they can deal with it in a more mature way, but what of your relationship with your kids? Their trust in you to be able to face the hard situations with them as well as the straightforward or enjoyable? It seems to me that when the real answers come out, all your kids have learned is that death and dying is something to be so afraid of that it’s better to make up a story than talk about the truth.

For me, death doesn’t need a sense of magic or fantasy. And the truth is, it’s a matter of faith pure and simple. At some point, you have obviously come to your own convictions about what happens after you die, so why not have the strength to share these with your child? I feel lucky to believe in heaven, but I would still start this important conversation with the disclaimer that “no one knows for certain what happens when a person dies but I believe…” As long as your child leaves the conversation knowing that the person who is gone isn’t in pain, isn’t sad, and isn’t scared, so they don’t have to be either, what are you worried about?

The meaning of death and dying, along with illness, sex, and any number of other words, are our responsibility to teach. They are brand new concepts to our children. They aren’t inherently scary words to be afraid of. They are whatever we want them to be. Do we want them to be a lie? Surely it’s our job to teach not only the meanings of the words, but also the emotional responses to these facts of life, in a clear and open way without relying on the quick fix of deception.

That’s how I feel today anyway. Ask me again when my boy loses his first tooth and I don wings and a sparkly pen to creep into his bedroom and retrieve it.

tooth fairy

And a very happy Jew year to you, too.

It’s that time of year again, and my newsfeed is littered with pictures of apples doing honey bucket challenges, and smiling families wishing everyone a happy and sweet new year.

For Jewish people around the world, this year has been pretty much the opposite of happy and sweet, and the situation in Israel has been foremost in all of our minds. The homes of the three boys who were taken and murdered earlier in the year will have empty places at their tables this Rosh Hashana, and many Israelis are still living in fear. But despite this, I have received calls and texts, messages, emails and even the odd card through the door, wishing me and all the Jewish people all the best for the year ahead. And it makes me proud.

Earlier this year, a teen evoked a small media frenzy, and a slightly larger social media backlash to a photo she took of herself at Auschwitz while on a class trip. The world erupted with anger at the ‘Auschwitz selfie’ taken at the scene of so much horror and tragedy, and that she had the nerve to stand smiling with a face full of make up at the site of murder and genocide.

And I knew at once why she did it. (Or rather, I knew at once why I would have done it. As it turns out, it was some kind of memorial to her late father, and she had none of the intentions that I jumped to conclusions over, but it got me thinking.) So here is why I would be proud to take an Auschwitz selfie.

I was 19 when I visited Poland, in the year of mourning for my dear father, and a few months on from my year living in Israel. I had probably never felt quite so close to God, and if I’d realised how fragile and transient that stage is, I would have appreciated it a lot more. I remember being told that concentration camps were a place of death, and it was right to be sad and to cry. But cemeteries, they were a place of life, a place to rejoice. If these people had graves, with names on, with markers or even headstones, that meant that someone buried them. Someone lived on after them to remember them, to place the memorial, to visit and to upkeep it. We were there now, reading these peoples names, wondering and imagining about their lives, and then most importantly, going home to continue our own, because of them and others of their generation and their bravery.

A selfie at Auschwitz? A smiling face amongst all that terror and death? I see it as a flag, a symbol of our endurance. After all, there are no smiling selfies of Nazis. Just last week, a Nazi of almost 100 years old was prosecuted for being an accessory to nearly 300,000 murders. But we Jews? We are still here, we exist, we live on. We smile.

And as I look over my newsfeed, at hopeful and excited faces and witty cartoons, happily taking the place of the videos of Hamas insisting Israel are driven into the sea, calling for the death of each and every one of the Jewish people, I can see life everywhere I look. It is our ability to look to the future, to believe in the strength of our faith and our homeland, and to smile in the face of terror that keeps us united. More than that, it is what keeps us alive.

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Wishing a happy, healthy and successful new year to each and every one of you!