I adore my nephew, but being his aunt can be really, really stressful sometimes. Mostly because I’m aware that I’m considered a bad influence and that my visiting rights could be revoked at any moment.*
It’s true. I am a Bad Titi, and for a number of reasons. One is that I am the human equivalent of one of those feral cats who’s been gradually and painstakingly socialized to tolerate the company of other people — provided there’s free food and no obligation to make physical contact with anyone**. Another, related to the first, is that growing up in a household whose motto was “survival of the fittest” has perhaps skewed my priorities somewhat.
I believe that children are adorable-yet-evil little chaos monsters; that is their nature, and I respect it — in the same way that I respect apex predators like bears, wolves, or tigers. I just let them do their thing and try not to get in the way.
So I’m annoyed, because recently I almost had to lie to a child. I narrowly avoided compromising my sole ethical guiding principle, which is “don’t lie to kids.” (I originally thought I had three, but then I learned that “try to fly under the radar whenever possible” doesn’t count and that “don’t sell out the people you love” exists within certain highly specific cultural parameters. So there you go.)
My mother made a point of not lying, ever. (She later apologized for this, because she eventually realized that having taught us that honesty is the best policy led to the assumption that other people are always honest, too, and they’re not. They’re really, really not.) Nevertheless, I still appreciate her attempts to level with me, e.g.:
“Mom, what happens when you die?”
“Well, I personally believe that we all go to Heaven and live with God, but there’s really no way of knowing for sure until death happens to you.”
“Got flushed down to the toilet to the sewers and her eternal rest.”
I thought that this was an acceptable response, because well…there is nothing false about that statement. Nothing provable, but nothing demonstrably false.
Now I’ll lie to adults, because most of the time, they can’t handle the truth. Whether it’s “Do I look good in this?” or “Why am I still single?” or the catch-all “Don’t you think that’s a great idea?”, they NEVER want to hear the real answer. I made a mistake and once told a friend of mine the truth, when she asked me why I didn’t like her boyfriend and I replied, “Well, to start with, he’s a sloppy alcoholic with priors who doesn’t treat you with the love and respect you deserve. Also, do you really want commit yourself to a Red Sox fan?” And she didn’t talk to me for, like, two years.
But kids deserve the truth.
Recently, my 2-year-old nephew was in what my Mom would call a “bad-boy mood”, as is typical of many toddlers, most of the time. After some attention-grabbing attempts at graffiti, followed by a bout of hair-pulling and punching, his mother sat him down for a conversation about how hitting is not appropriate. All well and good. Unfortunately, the conversation started not with “Hey, don’t be a little brat, ok?” but rather with “Do you think that’s funny?” to which my nephew responded (correctly, in my view), “Yeah.”
And which led to an excruciatingly awkward conversation in which all the adults in the room were forced to, in turn: “No. Hitting is not funny.” All we needed was a talking stick and and a round of trust falls and it would have been the worst team-building retreat ever.
Here’s the thing: hitting *can* be funny. Not always, not even often — but sometimes, yes. Like whenever my father used to take a swing at me or one of my brothers — and then miss spectacularly, because he could not land an effective blow if he were Kickpuncher. Or, to use a more recent example, when my nephew does it, because he is a cute little guy with a very large head and tiny, tiny fists. All told, he’s about as dangerous as a pouncing kitten.
So when my turn came around, I struggled to suppress my giggles and, improvising wildly, hedged with something along the lines of:
“Ok, the thing is, invariably you’re going to come up against an opponent who’s bigger and meaner and who hits much harder. And that will not be funny; that will be painful and humiliating. Don’t put yourself in that position. It’s better that way.”
That’s about the best I could do, based on my personal experience. I suppose that I could have added the other half of what life has taught me, which is that if your opponent is smaller and not as mean as you, you’re going to look like an asshole and no one will like you — except certain types of women who have been conditioned, through prior interactions with men, to respond positively to assholicism.”
But that is probably a conversation for when he’s older.
Meanwhile, if I am ever put on the spot again and forced to participate in any sort of teachable moment, I am going to retaliate by placing a box full of fluffy, orange kittens on the kid’s doorstep. Seriously, don’t try me.