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The mythology behind parenting

In Other Words

 


One day about a year ago, my daughter and I were in a pool at a hotel. While swimming, I overheard a mother tell her son not to put his head under the hot tub. “It’s bad for you, sweetie,” she told him. I chuckled, remembering hearing something similar when I was a child. But now that I’m a grown up, I disregard such a statement as myth. It may be slightly gross to put your head under the water in a shared hot tub, but truly bad for you?

The mother’s casual insistence made me wonder. How much of what we tell our kids is simply a convenience to get them to follow our directions, and how much is actually true? If we perpetuate a myth like that to our child, are we lying?

There are some classic parenting myths that are passed down the generations and almost every parent uses at one time or another. Put your jacket on, you don’t want to catch a cold. The store ran out of ice cream, honey. If you make that face too many times it will stay like that. They don’t make diapers in your size anymore.

Most of these little white lies have a purpose. The jolly man in the red coat is little more than a happy legend, but perpetuates important traditions. Putting a coat on, or not eating ice cream after dinner every night are important boundaries parents must implement for health or safety reasons, but the true explanations for them might pass far over the heads of little ones. So we spout off the one-liners we heard as children, and chances are, we get our way pretty easily. They put their coat on, or stop complaining about dessert.

But when do we make the crossover from a myth into simply lying? Is the act of passing down a myth you know to be untrue simply another term for deceit? On a recent survey on parenting.org, more than three-quarters of parents admit to having lied to their children at one time or another. Frankly, I’m surprised it wasn’t more. But, at what age are children entitled to find out the truth? Some myths fade on their own as children grow up, or their cover is blown by their peers, but what about things that might stick, like catching a cold or putting your head underwater in a hot tub?

In fact, maybe many of the myths we perpetuate are in fact wrong, even the ones we believe to be true. A recent study at the Common Cold Center in Wales found that if you get too chilled, you actually could catch a cold. Last week weather forecasters across the nation tuned in to hear what the nation’s favorite groundhog would predict. And although we were all cheered to hear Punxsutawney Phil predict that spring will come early, in actuality, he only has a 39-percent chance of being right. A fun tradition, but hardly something to base any sort of truth on.

At some point in the past, these myths we pass on to our children were developed. Sometimes it is clear: the mythical Greek gods developed from legends about actual extraordinary human beings. But not many among us believe that Zeus is an all-powerful god. However, the stories behind these legends, or the myths we tell our children, almost always impart some important message.

As children, we believed our trustworthy parents. Now that we are the adults, we use the same myths on our own children. Is it lying? Maybe, if you want to get technical. But there’s not a parent among us who isn’t thankful that our children genuinely believe the grocery store ran out of ice cream.

 

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