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One of parenting's biggest challenges is when to protect your kids from life and when to let them learn the truth about it.
This is a regular challenge for most parents. When I was dating, it was unclear how much I should disclose to the boys or when I should introduce them to a woman I was seeing. When their mother abandoned them and literally disappeared, did I tell them the truth about her (mental) instability or gloss over it?
When my parents were ill and dying, how much did I share with the boys about the details, and how much should they witness? With my 401k now a 201k, how much do I tell them about what we're all facing in this declining and uncertain economy?
Two stories come to mind about this subject that occurred in the past few years, in interesting and similar ways. One when it wasn't time (to tell them the truth) and one when it was.
My younger son, when he was 7 years old, wanted a hamster after playing at a friend's house that had several. Their mommy hamster had just given birth to several baby hamsters, and they graciously gave a darling one to my son. Since it was around his birthday, we went to the pet store and bought a nice hamster cage and all the trimmings. I made him promise to clean the cage once a week, and he agreed.
Like all toys that kids receive, he quickly relegated Margarita to a corner and, of course, never cleaned her cage. After all, that's what I'm here for, right? Nonetheless, when friends came over, he was proud to show off Margarita. He'd take her out of her cage and everyone would take turns holding and petting her. She slept in a little section of the cage that had a latch, which required careful closing, or she could push it open and escape.
One evening when they had several friends over, one of the kids left that latch unsecured. The next morning, after the boys had gone to school, I noticed this and saw that Margarita was gone. I urgently searched the immediate area, but couldn't find her.
After school, I broke the news to the boys and they, too, searched everywhere and couldn't find her. Now, the big worry, which I didn't remind them about, was our two dogs. Thankfully, they didn't really think about that.
A night or two later, after they had gone to bed, I found Margarita, next to my bed, wet and very dead. Obviously, the dogs found her. They hadn't eaten her, but she had certainly been thoroughly bathed.
I did not tell the boys. I chose to let them continue to believe Margarita escaped into the wilderness of our backyard. Some of life's truths can just wait.
Cut to a few years later after we'd moved to a new home and a little bird had chosen to make her nest in one of our tall potted-plants just outside our front door. Soon, there were five little eggs and shortly thereafter four little birds (not sure what happened to the fifth).
We watched happily and in awe as these extremely tiny creatures grew, fed only by their mother who frantically flew away each time we opened the adjacent door. We wondered when our little ones would fly away. After a few fast and short weeks, we awoke one morning to an empty nest. All the babies were gone, and it even looked and seemed as if they cleaned up before leaving. A warm, fuzzy feeling was had by all.
A few weeks later, the same mommy (or another) laid more eggs in the same nest. Same pattern; same little baby birds followed. But, this time, my younger son, then 9, got life's harsher lesson when he opened the door one morning to check on the babies.
Rushing back inside, he was crying and screaming that they had been eaten. My older son and I scurried outside and, indeed, we saw only two of the babies, one apparently dead and on its back, the other dead and slightly bloody.
Finally, my younger son calmed down. We discussed life's risks for animals; how so many do not survive. We reflected on the beauty and wonder of our first nest of babies who grew and flew away in apparent health and happiness.
This time, they were ready and the boys realized that life has its harsh moments and realities.
- Bruce Sallan is a former television executive and producer (Google him if you want to know his credits) who has been a full-time dad to his two boys for more than 10 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.