Sunday, August 1, 2010

When You Say All the Right Things, and You're Wrong

On the route home from the school where I work and my daughter attends, there has been, for many years, an old, somewhat dilapidated house.  It's not a terribly residential neighborhood, and the house neither added nor subtracted much from the area.  It was just there.  Then, towards the end of May, we drove past and the house that was "just there" wasn't there anymore.  Where it had been was a pile of debris, obviously the physical materials that had made up the house.

My daughter gasped when she saw it.  "Look, Mom!  That house just collapsed!!"  I was quick to respond.  I assured her that the house didn't just collapse, that it had certainly been demolished to make room for something else and we just happened by in between the demolition and the removal of the debris.  "That's good," she replied, "because a house just falling over like that would be pretty scary."

As the days went by, we drove past the spot every day.  Soon yellow caution tape went up around the debris pile, but the debris itself didn't move.  If we had, indeed, just happened along in between the demolition and the cleanup, clearly we had had ample opportunity.  After about a week, a story appeared on our local news website.  The headline read:

Vacant house on North Main Street collapses; cleanup awaits city permit
As it turns out, the house was indeed slated for demolition, and the owner had applied for a demolition permit.  However, before one was issued, according to the owner, the house collapsed.

It just collapsed.

Not only was I wrong when I told my daughter it hadn't just collapsed (and she will tell you this was hardly the first time I was ever wrong!), but I had reassured her by making her believe something that, as it turns out, wasn't true.  This is a big no-no when you're talking to kids who are worried about something.  You never lie or hide the truth when they ask a question, because they need to know they can trust you.  But, inadvertently, I had told her something that wasn't true.  It wasn't a lie, it was a mistake.  But it shook the basis of why she wasn't supposed to worry about houses collapsing nonetheless.

Even though it was unintentional, I actually did bring this problem upon myself.  When we talked about it initially, I didn't say that a controlled demolition was "my best guess" or "probably" or "most likely" what happened.  I said it "certainly" was what happened.  I spoke in absolutes about something I didn't actually have the facts about.  That's another big no-no.  And now we see why. 

So what could I do?  First, I thanked my lucky stars that this wasn't something that my daughter was really distressed about, so the damage was minimal to none.  Second, I acknowledged that I had been wrong.  I said,

I know I said that the house didn't collapse, but now we found out that it did.  It had been empty for a long time and was in very bad condition, and in fact the owner was getting ready to tear it down.  So yes, it 'just collapsed,' but it didn't happen all of a sudden out of the blue.
That was good enough for her.  And it is some version of what I should have said in the first place.  Mistakes happen, and while it's best to avoid them, it's second best to admit them.  Believe it or not, that preserves kids' trust in adults, because they know we're doing our best.

For more about talking to kids about traumatic events, check out last week's post about the murder of two kids in Texas, and this list of tips from my website.


Colleen said...

Can you imagine the stress of being the kid of a parent who never makes mistakes? You are doing your job better by making them ;-)

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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