Writer and broadcaster

“My son’s grandmother gave him some chocolate and told him to lie about it.” Published in The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

Several months ago while putting our five-year-old son to bed, my wife saw what she thought was blood on his pyjamas. She asked him where it was from and he said it wasn’t blood, it was chocolate and got very upset.

The night before, his grandmother was babysitting and when she put him to bed had given him chocolate. Not ideal, but not the end of the universe, we thought. However, she then told him he mustn’t tell Mummy or Daddy or we wouldn’t let her babysit him any more. Well, she got that bit right!

My wife rang her and she got defensive and aggressive, denied she had done anything wrong and called my wife a liar. Subsequently, we understand, she told several friends her version of events and, allegedly, they agreed she had done nothing wrong.

For over three months we have been waiting for her to admit she made a mistake, promise it won’t happen again and apologise for all the upset she has caused. I do not think this is unreasonable. Notwithstanding birthday surprises or similar, we don’t think it is ever acceptable for an adult to tell a child to deceive another adult (especially his parents) and would appreciate some insight.

I and H, via email

OK, let’s look at this. Your mother/mother-in-law was looking after your son and she put him to bed and gave him some chocolate. And, in a moment of grandmother/grandson conspiracy, she told him not to tell you. This is what seems to have happened. As deceptions go it really isn’t very big, or serious.

Yes, in an ideal world she wouldn’t have given him chocolate before bedtime and yes, in this ideal world that doesn’t exist, she wouldn’t have whispered to him that you shouldn’t hear about this, but she probably knew you’d overreact, and she was right. One day you will have grandchildren and, believe it or not, you might do something like this. I hope you do because grandparents play an important role in a child’s life. Not least they tend to be a little more elastic with the rules. I used to be annoyed at how many treats my mother gave my children, but now I have decided that, when I trust her to look after them, I trust her to look after them (after all, she raised me!). I’m sure she has also told my children not to tell me about the number of chocolate biscuits they eat when there. I let them get on with it.

I think it’s telling that you don’t say if this is your mother or your mother-in-law. And yet I think this is so much more than just about her giving your child some chocolate. It has to be. Has this woman no history, no credit to her name? Has she done nothing good that can be weighed against this?

You asked for some insight and here it is: I think you have massively overreacted. When you rang her up and she denied it, I’m not surprised. I might have lied to you too, given how incredibly rigid you sound. It’s not great that she lied, but she was probably fearful. What would have been cooler is if you’d have said “Look, it’s not ideal but don’t tell him to lie to us because it makes us uncomfortable” and then moved on. Or granted both her and your son the sense to know the difference between a real deception and a little familial conspiracy.

Please, ring her up and sort this out. Three months is a ridiculous amount of time; your heels must be wearing out by now. This is how families become estranged. Be the big person. Have a laugh about it. Send her chocolates! Be cool. Be brave. Teach your son that you can handle a little transgression.

Because, imagine what this is like for him. Your son must now think that his words have caused Grandma to get into trouble and for his parents to be angry. What he’s now learned is that telling the truth causes a whole load of upset.

You don’t teach someone to deceive by telling someone to do it. You teach them to deceive by showing them that the truth can’t be dealt with in a calm, responsible manner. People who are scared lie, people who are afraid of what the reaction might be. Your son did not deceive you. He told you what happened. Grandma didn’t teach him to deceive. But you just might have.

First published in The Guardian.