I imagine that my godson is often confused. The rules at Aunt Lorraine’s house are quite different than the ones that he is expected to follow at home. I know that he was bewildered when I COMPLETELY FREAKED OUT over him nonchalantly throwing a wrapper out of the car window. “We DON’T do that! That’s mean to the people who work here–they will have to pick it up!” (having worked retail, I am constantly trying to teach the children in my life to respect the fact that someone will have to clean up after them.) Clearly, he had seen someone casually throw garbage out of the car window before, most likely more than once.
Having a different set of rules means that it’s inevitable that some of what I tell him to be true will not be true in his “other” world. To be fair, some of the things I say are not really true in my world either, but they are things that I wish to be true. Case in point: “If someone loves you, they won’t hurt you”. Simple enough, right?
When a child is three, it is difficult to discern how much truth there is in anything he says. “My brother called me a punk”–well, that I believe, but I know that the brother in question would have said this in a joking way. I also know that this little boy knows that he has his Auntie’s heart, and that I will pour out compassion and sympathy on him at the least hint of a wrong being done to him–and this despite the fact that I also know him to have a self-righteous/”poor me” mentality much of the time. In his world, even accidental slights can be cause for dramatics, and one’s motives are often questioned. (“You DID do that on purpose!”)
I believe with all my heart, though, that although children’s words may not always be truthful, nonetheless they have ways of telling that come through loud and clear and that are the Gospel truth. We recently had one of those moments. Through a combination of what he said, what he acted out, and the surrounding facts that I was aware of, I knew that someone who loves him (or claims to love him) had hurt him. And because he is three, because our society does not believe children, because I cannot “prove” anything, there is very little I can do about it. Direct confrontation would be met with outright denial or worse, with me being cut off and therefore even less able to try to shelter him.
(I had a therapist once who said of abuse that “children think they tell”. I think that’s somewhat of a cop-out. Are they really not telling, or are we just not listening?)
Ever since this incident, I have spent a lot of time trying to reassure him with this lie–“people who love you are not going to hurt you”. The night he disclosed to me, he had a lot of questions for me. Well, really the same question, asked in a myriad of ways–“Snoopy (stuffed animal) is not going to hurt me? Max and Ruby are not going to hurt me?” and so on. I had told him that love and the infliction of physical pain were incompatible, and this was very much at odds with what he knew to be true.
His brothers adore him, but yes, they are boys, and so they play rough with him . . . but they do love him, and they are not usually cruel. It was not one of his brothers who did this to him. But he has often reported to me that his brothers did this or called him that, and that is when I tell him another lie: “They’d better not hurt you or call you names! If they do, you tell me and I’ll stop them.” It’s another variation of the same lie I tell him when he is clinging desperately to me because there is a dog nearby, or he is convinced that Chuck E Cheese is hiding somewhere. “I won’t let anybody hurt you . . . I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” How do I explain to him that what I mean is that in this moment, and when I can control it, I will keep him safe, but that I cannot promise to keep him safe every moment of every day, because the world doesn’t work that way?
“If someone hurts you, you tell me, and I will do something about it.” Lovey, I so want this to be true, and yet I know that this statement must confuse you. Because you did tell me, and I know in my heart of hearts that you are telling the truth, and yet I have lied to you–there is nothing I can do, or at least nothing that will not make things worse for you.
I can’t “prove” that it happened, and I am too much of a coward to confront either the perpetrator or his enabler. All I can really do is to try to teach this child that this is not how things should be. In the meantime, I continue to speak these words that he must surely take in with bewilderment and a sense of despair: “You deserve to be safe. If someone hurts you, tell me and I will protect you.”
I will find a way, Lovey. You deserve to be safe. You deserve to live your life unafraid. And if I really love you like I say I do, then I need to push past my own cowardice and fight for you until all of the lies I am telling you become truth.