Better the devil you know

Today, I read a book about a sneaky Tasmanian devil called Neville. I was with my son, not on my own. When I’m on my own, I prefer to read more elevating material, like listicles. This book made me think about the murky territory of honesty with children, and how best to get around it.

In the book, Neville secretly follows his mum out at night to scavenge for food. They stay out ‘til daybreak, and Neville is pretty certain he is the stealthiest creature ever. When they get back to the den, his mum says she knew he was there the whole time. This could have been a lie, but it’s still an effective marketing tactic that parents of all species have employed and will continue to for millennia: we are not bound by the limits of our actual eyes. We are OMNISCIENT, except when we ignore things we have actually seen to buy ourselves time.

Parents are very good at performing speedy cost-benefit analyses, and I’ll wager that is what Neville’s mum actually did. She weighed up the time it would take to re-settle Neville back in the den with the potential harm of letting him follow her around. She may also have considered that, if he followed her around, not only would she be able to keep a covert eye on him, but he would be tired and likely to need an extended nap the following day. Some decisions make themselves.

I am no stranger to this sort of calculation, and grapple with it often. Should I let my son massage play-doh into a velvet cushion if it means I can finish my tea and read this poignant account of a skateboarding cat’s brush with death? (Of course). Is it worth knowingly misleading my child by saying all dinosaurs hibernated for a substantial part of the year just so I can lie down on the couch for a while when we are being pterodactyls? No, never, (yes).

People can be so puritanical about telling children the truth. I believe honesty is a spectrum and we mustn’t confine ourselves to a fixed point on it. This fluidity with truth is a key capability for parents/politicians across all species.

My son, unfortunately, knew the thing about pterodactyls hibernating was fake news and called me on it, which made me feel both proud and annoyed in equal measure. When Neville the Tasmanian devil found out his mum had outsmarted him, he was awed by her. When I tried to be cunning, my son was scathing.

Because I’m an adult, I got back at him by letting him watch Peter Rabbit on iView in Cantonese for ten minutes before I suggested there was something amiss (it was actually much better in a foreign language). So now we are even.

Until next time, child of mine.

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