One of the cool things about being a parent (in addition to driving a minivan and having postpartum incontinence issues during jumping jacks) is that, should your child ever ask a question to which you don’t know the answer, you have the right and responsibility to simply make something up.
Last night for example, the four of us were walking to the neighborhood pub for burgers and beer (Husbandio), Riesling (me) and chocolate milk (Buddy and Sweetie). Buddy, observer of all things fascinating, noted how very many manholes there were in one particular intersection. “Why, mama?” he asked, “Why are there so many manholes only in this intersection?”
I glanced around, noting that the intersection happened to be at the lowest part, like in a valley, between two hills. So I called upon my background as an English teacher, as well as my ability to create fiction.
“Well,” I said, speaking with teacherly confidence and authority, “You see how this particular intersection is at the lowest part of two hills? During a rainstorm, all the water drains down here. So they need a lot of manholes. Otherwise, this intersection would undoubtedly flood.”
“Hm,” said Buddy, pleased with his new knowledge. “OK.”
But then, el Husbandio gave me one of those raised-eyebrow looks.
“That’s right, dear,” I said. “And if you paid more attention to the monthly Seattle Public Utilities brochure, you too would be privy to such wisdom.”
And this, friends, is precisely why my children think I am smarter than their Dad. I make stuff up. Pretty much all the time. Being a fiction writer is a slippery slope, let me tell you.
Of course, for all the important things, I teach only the truth. They know about vaginas and penises and what happens whenever the twain shall meet. Ask them what happens if they smoke cigarettes, and they’ll reply, “Your lungs will turn black, your teeth will turn yellow and you’ll smell bad.” Ask what they should do if someone approaches them with candy or a photo of a lost puppy or tells them that their Dad and I are hurt and they should get in the car and go to the hospital with them, and my kids will say (in a totally unpanicked voice), “We don’t go near their car or take their candy or look at their pictures and if they try to get near us we scream like this: “help. help me. someone, help me.”
Yep, I have taught them truth about the things I find most important. But should they ask about sewers or how poop becomes poop or how birds can tell one another apart, I tend to just make stuff up. It’s easier on them because they leave the conversation feeling satisfied that an answer exists. Kids, in case you haven’t noticed, are not comfortable with a parent’s admission of “I don’t know.” It frightens them. And of course, when I can explain how a flock of jays or seagulls can recognize one another, it’s better for me because they think I am really smart.
I will also admit that I might have employed a similar technique once or twice when I was teaching Hamlet or Othello and, just like my students complained, Shakespearean English was a little confusing, what with the beautiful-but-goofy syntax and outdated insults and hie ye hithers. And please, I was 22 when I started teaching high school: very, very green. How could I be expected to know every single word of every single play? Plus, I had one senior who, I am NOT making this up, turned 21 when I was teaching him. (That was Martin . . . raise your hand if you remember Martin. The kid who asked if he could sell Ginsu knives in the English department office?) My students, all of them, even the sweet honors kids, would have eaten me alive had I shown any sign of ineptitude.
Of course, I know the time is drawing near when I won’t actually be able to make stuff up, when I can’t fake the truth. I already practically can’t do Buddy’s math homework . . . Everyday Math, my arse! But I guess that’s just it: right now, I can make Buddy rest assured that even during Seattle’s record-breaking rains, one particular intersection with all its many manholes, will not flood. Right now I can give them a funny explanation of how a flock of identical-looking birds can call out to one of its buddies, “Hey Wally! Fly over here for a second!” And Wallace Johnson Bird, Jr. will. That’s how birds know one from another: they have names. The names their bird-parents gave them when they hatched. Surnames too, just to make sure that there’s no confusion between all the Maddie jays and the Jaden gulls.
Because, let’s be honest, birds really do look alike. How else could they tell one another apart without first and last names?
It’s true. I swear! Just try to prove me wrong on the topic of bird names. Really, I dare you.