Sarah R. Callender


In Parenting on July 31, 2010 at 7:40 am

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.

  1. I am just like Anna and Will. Your explainations/solutions on precocious four year olds, marriage, book clubs, toliet training, in-laws, the kindergarten bus, teaching reading, how to survive nursing, etc.- make me CALM! (and often laugh out loud). Couldn’t do it without you and I LOVE this blog.

  2. I, too, am a frequent bullshooter with my students. Sadly, I got caught several times last year making up historical facts with my honors juniors. I blamed it on the fact that I am often fundamentally stupid before 9 am. I’m pretty sure they were not feeling comforted by that comment, given that class started at 8:00.

    • LOL, Andrea. Yes, Honors Juniors are the WORST. It’s much better to teach something like English, rather than something like History. Historical facts (i.e. provable things) are far harder to bullshoot.

  3. Hee-hee. It is enjoyable to make stuff up. Although I can’t helop hiding my annoyance at questions about how various machines work, and usually reply, “I didn’t invent/build that X, so I don’t know. Ask your dad.” The next time I am stumped, I may ask the kids to call you!
    P.S. I miss seeing you in the gym bathroom during the jumping jacks portion of aerobics class!

  4. I have enjoyed waking up in the mornings to find new posts written from your blog. Laughter is a great way to start out my day! Just as Robin mentioned above, I just may have to have my kids call you when they ask questions. Your answers are far more creative than the ones I would ever give them. And as far as incontinence goes, it has gotten exponentially worse during my third pregnancy. I can’t imagine what it will be like after I birth this one out!

  5. Great blog! My husband would probably believe me rather than doubt… around my home I guess that makes me a goddess 🙂

  6. When I was a kid, we were driving on a bumpy logging road high up in the Cascades. Mom was getting worried about the terrain and if our VW bus’s old tires could handle it. Dad said, “Sure they can handle it! In fact, it livens up the rubber.” Livens up the rubber has been a euphemism for bullshooting ever since.

    And I just have to add that I love the term bullshooting. It’s way better than the original, nastier word. B/c here you’re actually SHOOTING, like rolling dice or aiming at a target or doing a really cool roller skating move. Bullshooting. Good stuff.

  7. So glad to have found this via Janna’s FB post. We have been castigated of late for our standard line: “When the ice cream truck is playing music, it means he’s out of ice cream.” It has started quite a fury over whether or not small children deserve Absolute Truth At All Times. Having chosen to include both Jesus and Santa in our Christmas celebrations, I figure ice cream truck etiquette is the least of their worries. And now I have an explanation for bird identification… Love it!

  8. Sarah, you about made me day. Bless you and your Manhole Covers Are For Floods believing children. Yes, I am a writer. Very irregularly, very wishing-I-was-Anne-Lamott-and-Janna-and-Trish-and-now-Sarah-ly, but yes, in my heart, a writer.

  9. Alison, dear. I LOVE your voice even in these little snippets. You are a writer because of your ability to play with words. All that word-play you do? That’s true love. And heck, if you are a writer in your heart, then that’s all that’s necessary. After all, it’s not at all useful to be a writer in one’s gall bladder or one’s uvula, am I right? You are a writer in the right place. Bless you too.

  10. when 4 and 5 year olds at work ask me about things i don’t know the answer to i usually just turn the question back to them: “Why do you think it’s like that?” they usually come up with a better answer than i could.

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