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Long story short: my first wife passed away while giving birth to my daughter. Two years later, I've remarried, but I am concerned over when should I tell my daughter the truth about her mother.

My daughter is now 3 years old, and she's calling my new wife "mom".

How can I deal with this situation without affecting negatively my daughter's health?

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    "she's calling my new wife mom." Do you view this as a problem? The wording of your questions suggests you do, but it doesn't seem that strange to me. – jpmc26 Aug 30 '16 at 19:26
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    How is your relationship with the first mother's family? I would expect this child to have up to 6 grandparents, which could be a good starting point for this discussion. (And will cause her to ask questions soon enough) – Erik Aug 31 '16 at 12:33
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    I would start with not calling her "her real mom", as if to mean that your current (and to her actual) mom is somehow fake or bad. I would imagine that this wording both disturbs your daughter and seriously pisses of your wife. – xLeitix Sep 2 '16 at 6:56
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    Bear in mind she might hear it from somone else before you address it. – user24286 Sep 2 '16 at 18:33
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    Good luck and lots of strength with this I really feel with you on this, it must be a really tough one. I recently had to inform my young one about the death of her favorite grandmother it was a first for me. Whatever route you take kids are very resilient in their innocence and all they need is support. – Namphibian Sep 3 '16 at 1:53

17 Answers 17

140

Children are resilient, and are usually far more capable of dealing with the idea of death than we give them credit for.

There are two things I would avoid:

  • Referring to her birth mother as her "real" mom

and

  • Waiting too long before telling her

Your current wife is your daughter's mom. Period. But so was your first wife. Personally, I would take the approach of telling your daughter that she's got two moms. The one that she knows, and the one that died when she was a baby.

How many details, if any, that you provide beyond that depend on what questions your daughter asks, although I agree on the advice on being careful of telling her that your first wife died during childbirth.

If that does come up in her questions, you can be vague (e.g. "she became ill when she was pregnant") without being deliberately evasive.

It is, in my opinion, better to tell her now for two reasons. One reason is that the earlier you tell her, the more commonplace it will seem to her. If she's "always" (children remember very little, if anything, of episodic details from before they are 4 or 5) known that she had 2 mothers, and that one died when she was a baby, that will simply be a fact of how things are, rather than an unusual or potentially disturbing detail.

The other reason is that the longer you delay, the more she might question why you waited so long to tell her something so important.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Sep 5 '16 at 16:27
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    An adoptive mother is a "real" mom, just not a birth mom. – Tenfour04 Sep 10 '16 at 2:52
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I cannot really give first-hand advice, never having been in a similar situation. However, I would think the basic approach should be the same as for an adopted child. Basically:

  • don't push information on the child she is not ready to handle, but
  • don't make it a secret either

There are multiple questions about how to handle adoption on this site, for example When is the right time to tell my daughter she's not my biological child? and How and when should I tell my son that his amazing father isn't his biological father?.

Of course, the situation is not quite the same. Possible complications include:

  • Your daughter, once she understands the concept of death, may worry that you will also die soon.
  • She might have a lot of questions about her biological mother that you are unable or find uncomfortable to answer.
  • She might feel responsible for her mother's death, particularly if her mother died from birth complications. You might consider not telling all details right away on this point. Thanks to JoeTaxpayer for mentioning this.

If you run into problems, consider getting assistance from a counselor, or a self-help group for widowers / orphans.

  • The "She might have a lot of questions..." "complication" is ridiculous. Are you suggesting that a child cannot take that their parents aren't omniscient? Or that you should avoid talking about things that lead to "hard questions/answers"? – Luaan Aug 31 '16 at 11:59
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    @Luaan: No, I am suggesting what I wrote - that the questions might be hard to answer ("Why did this have to happen?"), or might make OP uncomfortable, e.g. because of grief about the death. And I never suggested that OP should avoid talking about these points, I was just pointing out things to be aware of and to possibly prepare for. – sleske Aug 31 '16 at 12:05
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Your second wife is your daughter's mom. She's all that your daughter has ever known. She's just 3 years old, and this stability (mom & you) is important to her. You don't have to be the biological mother to be a mom to a child.

We had some family skeletons that we disclosed to our daughter in part when she was about 12/13. At that point, she was old enough to understand complicated concepts and emotions. As she asks questions now, I answer them. But we never wanted her to feel that she was the cause of anything and young children have a tendency to do that because they view everything in their lives with themselves at the center.

It sounds like you are having some internal issues yourself with your daughter calling your wife 'mom'. You likely miss your first wife, and feel a bit conflicted about possibly 'losing her memory.' You won't, and these feelings are very natural. While you don't need to hide your first wife's existence, I don't think I would make the exact details of her death prominent.** Your child needs time to bond with her mom. I would definitely suggest that you talk to a professional counselor about this as soon as possible, though.

** What I mean is that it's perfectly ok to mention that you were married before and you loved your first wife, but she died. I don't think I'd bring up the 'she died in childbirth giving birth to you' at this point. Your first wife is part of your family even though she is gone. Your child just needs some time to gain enough maturity to understand the story and that it isn't her fault that her mother died and that her relationship with her current mom is normal and deep.

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    The child has a human right (article 7) to know who her parents are / were. This isn't just an abstract human right, it's important from the point of view of genetic disease, for example. – user19912 Sep 1 '16 at 19:04
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    No one is saying that she shouldn't know who her parents are. But giving a 3-year-old details of her mother's death like: "She died giving birth to you" is going to create more problems than it solves. She needs some loving people around her and knowing that she had a Mom that is now gone but has a Mom that loves her is very important. Legal definitions don't always map well to messy human conditions. Why does she need to know death details THIS MINUTE? She can learn that later when she can handle it. – ScotT Sep 1 '16 at 19:49
  • @LeopoldoSparks Which declaration of human rights are you referring to? Article 7 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is: "All are equal before the law and are entitle without any discrimination to equal protection of the law...." etc., and has nothing to do with knowing one's parents. Is there another version you're referring to? Note, I'm not disagreeing with it being an important right. – user420 Sep 2 '16 at 14:18
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    @Beofett Convention on the rights of the child. Because we're talking about a child, and the rights of that child. – user19912 Sep 2 '16 at 19:12
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    @ScotT yes, that's right. She needs to know in an age appropriate way now, and that information can be expanded as she gets older. – user19912 Sep 5 '16 at 16:14
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My biological father died when i was an infant, and my mom remarried before I knew any difference.
They told me about this when I was somewhere between 6 and 8 years old. I might even have started to suspect something, since my new dad is a very big man and so was my little brother, but I am a smaller guy (even at that age you can notice, and the adults who knew would not say "he's going to grow up tall like father", so I might have started to catch on). I think this timing is perfect. I was old enough to deal with the idea, and my response even at that time was "this doesn't change anything between us".
I didn't know how exactly my father died until much later in life. The details are not important. So exclude anything about 'died in childbirth', it's enough to say she got sick when the baby was young and the hospital could not cure her. Keep it simple, avoid the details, and focus on warmth and love.

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    Would it not have been better if you did not remember not knowing (because you were told earlier)? – hkBst Sep 4 '16 at 12:44
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A little about myself...

My Mom married my Dad when I was 5. At 12, she revealed to me that he wasn't my biological father. It was absolutely traumatic and devastating. It felt like my life was a lie. It felt like I was a lie, a fake, a sham of a person.

No young person should ever have to feel this way. If you tell your child the truth now, while they're young enough for this to be their normal, they won't even bat an eye. They'll accept it for precisely what is and not give it much of a second thought. Do your kid the favor and be honest about who they are sooner rather than later.

That said, it's completely okay for your child to call your current wife Mom. She is their Mom. My biological father is not my Dad, the man who raised me is. A bit different for your child, they simply have two Mom's. Not a big deal at all. My step children know very well and are very comfortable with the fact that they have two pairs of parents. Mostly because that just is their life, it's normal for them.

  • My eldest daughter is 5 and she has trouble remembering people that she knew when she was younger, but has not seen for a long time. Still I find it hard to imagine she would not remember me if I were to suddenly disappear. I would be very interested in hearing about your recollection of your biological father, assuming he was a part of your life for close to 5 years. – hkBst Sep 4 '16 at 12:58
  • @hkBst he wasn't part of my life. What I can tell you, is that when I was 10-ish, I had a fairly significant meltdown because I remembered the absence of my Dad. I didn't have real memories of being that young, but I did somehow remember that there was a period of time that I didn't have one. – RubberDuck Sep 4 '16 at 13:01
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You tell her when the opportunity arises naturally.

For example, your daughter may see a pregnant woman, or you and your wife may be planning on having children together. When this occurs, your daughter will almost certainly ask a question like, "Did I grow in your tummy too, mommy?" At that point you or your wife simply say, in a matter-of-fact way, "No, you grew in another mommy's tummy."

And then you let your daughter guide the conversation.

If you treat it as something matter-of-fact and don't make a big production of sitting down and telling her, then she will also treat it as matter-of-fact. She may have more questions immediately or she may not.

Eventually, she will ask, "Why did I grow in another mommy's tummy?" or "Then why is mommy my mommy instead of the other mommy?" or a similar question. You respond with a matter of fact answer: "When you were born, you had another mommy, but she wasn't able to take care of you." And continue to let her guide the conversation.

When she asks, "Why wasn't my other mommy able to take care of me?" then explain that.

This way the conversation grows and evolves naturally, and there's no implication that your wife isn't your daughter's "real" mother. If she asks about whether she had another daddy too, then you simply tell her, "No, daddy has always been your daddy," and answer any questions that may come out of that as well ("Why did I have another mommy but not another daddy?").

A few notes about this approach:

  • Make certain your wife is in agreement, because she will likely be the one to be asked about it first (and she will likely be asked most of the questions, since it's about her role in your daughter's life).

  • The keys to this approach are to answer question immediately, truthfully, age-appropriately, and in a matter-of-fact manner. An example of this is the reply we gave our sons when they asked about where babies came from at age 3; with our older son, these questions were spaced out, but with the younger the two questions came back-to-back. Notice that these answers are both age-appropriate and truthful--they don't contradict anything learned later about human development:

    • The first answer was, "Babies grow inside mommies until they're born."
    • When they asked how babies got there, the reply was: "When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much and in a very special way, sometimes a baby starts to grow inside the mommy."
  • Don't give all the information at once. Let your daughter guide the conversation. I.e., at age 3 or 4, she will probably not immediately take the conversation to the point that you would need to tell her that your first wife died, especially during childbirth. When she's ready for that information, she'll ask questions that will naturally and easily lead you into discussing it.

Fortunately, this isn't a topic we've had to grapple with, but this is an approach we've used successfully to discuss many things with our children over the years, including the ever-dreaded, "Where do babies come from?"

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    Excellent answer. I really think you should highlight the "let your daughter guide" part - that is the core (and excellent advice for many other situations). – sleske Nov 6 '17 at 11:15
  • @sleske - Good point on the highlighting. Done. – Doug R. Nov 6 '17 at 13:22
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Your daughter needs a positive differentiating term for each of the two women. Much like you introduced the your name as either "Dad", "Father", "Papa", or "Daddy" to your daughter, she will need something like "Mom", "Mother", "Mommy" for the 2 women. Recommend emphasizing the endearment "Mom" for the second wife and "mother" for the original. Daughter is the product of 3 people, all who care(d) for her. Do not leave anyone out.

With that determined, proceed to explain family origins.

As one who grew up in a similar situation, (parent loss as a young child, re-marriage), best to simple talk about all 3 promptly and emphasize the unity of the families involved. Certainly the parents/relatives of the original mother and 2nd wife come into play too.

It sounds like the current wife is not an adoptive mother of the child - that has bearing.

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    Using "mother" and "mom" to distinguish two people might eventually conflict with how general population uses the terms. Could first names work the same? – Jirka Hanika Aug 31 '16 at 1:21
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    @user7891 I've used "Father" and "Dad" for decades and amongst my family there is no confusion. Using "Mom" and "Mother" for OP's daughter will work well for a 3-year old. This issues is that to recognize the original mother is no less the mother than the current wife who certainly cares for (and wipes the nose) of the young child. The child has 3 parents (one deceased) and associated relatives. No need to consider only 2. As time goes on, the original mother will take on significance, but that significance does not need to diminish the role and closeness of the 2nd wife. – chux - Reinstate Monica Aug 31 '16 at 2:06
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    I think it's fine to arbitrarily assign "mother" and "mom". The thing to be careful of is assuming that society at large will attach some deep meaning to which is which (beyond the greater formality of "mother"). – mattdm Aug 31 '16 at 12:55
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It really depends on your perspective. When I was 8 my biological parents divorced and after some time they each found new wives. All four of my parents had significant parts to play in raising me, so I consider myself to have three moms, although I only call my biological mother "mom."

It's a good thing your daughter calls your second wife "mom." If your second wife is ok with being called "mom," then all is well.

I think you should consider telling your daughter sooner rather than later. Once she is old enough to understand the reality (and that's your judgement call), then you should sit her down and explain. If you wait until the situation arises organically ("mommy, did I kick a lot when I was in your tummy?"), then she may feel that she has been lied to, and nobody likes when that happens to them.

  • I have to strongly disagree with your last paragraph...see my response below, but in short: it all depends on how you deal with the issue when it arises naturally. If you treat it as matter-of-fact, then so will the child. – Doug R. Sep 2 '16 at 16:08
  • As I said at the top, it's a matter of opinion. We aren't OP, and it isn't our child either, so ultimately it's a personal gauge of appropriateness. – rm -rf slash Sep 2 '16 at 16:14
  • You did. And that's why I'm still giving you an up-vote. I simply said that I disagreed with your opinion. – Doug R. Sep 2 '16 at 16:17
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I would suggest that for a very young child the concept of her natural mother not being around is a fairly distant one and not something which is going to be particularly disruptive to her current frame of reference ie it doesn't really change anything for her to know.

By extension as she gets older and starts to understand the concept of parents in a wider context it may be more upsetting or her to find out that her concept of her mother isn't quite what she imagines it to be.

With this in mind it is probably no bad thing to introduce the concept of having another mother right now. Indeed you may want to introduce her to some of the same memories you have of her yourself through photographs etc.

This may be a little awkward for you and your new relationship but it's not as if anybody involved has done anything wrong by any stretch of the imagination.

To put it another way it may be a bit complex for your 3 year old child to understand but at least if you bring it up it is out there to talk about. Otherwise if you keep it quiet how are you going to explain it when she is 16 or 18 ?

I would also steer clear of any overtly religious metaphors to explain death these tend not to be very helpful to young children and I think you owe it to them to let them form their own opinions on the fine detail of religion and metaphysics. By all means express your own beliefs and hopes but give her the space to come to her own conclusions.

It is also entirely reasonably that she should see your new wife as her mother as that is her only experience of motherhood .

Consider also that if you tell her the bald facts as you have posed them in this question how bad could it possibly be ? Nothing actually changes in her life and she is as aware of the facts as she can be.

3

Absolutely tell her the truth as soon as possible, or it will make you a lier and her life a lie. At two you have a golden opportunity to have the situation seem natural. The longer you wait, the more it will seem like her situation has something tainted, which is why you would have chosen to wait so long.

Beofett definitely has the right approach. I think many others are giving bad advice.

Kid's understand about death. Tell her what a wonderful person her birth mother was. How beautiful she was. How much you miss her. And that you both love her current mom very much.

If you have any pictures, share them. What about the birth mother's family? Are they in the picture?

There may be tricky stuff going on here that has yet been unsaid.

Personally, I think you are getting great ideas here with stuff to think about, but they will be no substitute from a skilled child counselor. People study these sorts of things, what approaches have been used, and what the outcomes are. They know more than we might realize.

Contrary to how many view science, they will also know that one size does not fit all. I expect that before giving advice they will ask you a lot of questions about yourself, your daughter, her birth mother, her now mother, and details about the whole situation. They will give educated advice from there.

I wish you the best of luck. Remember, the most important thing in all of this is that your daughter know that you love her and her now mom and always do your best to care care of your current family.

2

I would suggest that the first step is to talk to your wife about what kind of relationship she wants with your daughter. If she wants to be mom, then you might even consider deferring to her wishes on how to handle this question, since going forward, she is going to be fulfilling all the mothering roles for your daughter.

2

I like the answer of Beofett and want to extend on it. My advise would be:

Let your daughter pick the right time.

What do I mean by that? The concept of a ceremonial burial is an important human achievement and helps to deal with the concept of death. By ceremonial burial I also mean for example ritualistic gatherings (for example https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_the_Dead) apart from the funeral. Of course maybe such things are not part of your culture. My advise would be (with such an important death in your family) to pick up such a ritualistic event in some way (you do not have to be religious do such thing). But first I will tell you about how I myself was raised to emphasis more on my perspective.

I happened to grew up in a big family (with lots of old people). So funeral as a child were quite a common event. Due to this exposure question about death will naturally appear. Note that for us as children I did also involve playtime with other cousins. So in retroperspective I cannot really separate them from other family events.

There was also the Totensonntag (Sunday of the dead https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totensonntag). On that they my family normally went to the graveyard and talked about the dead members of our family. (I like the idea of such a generic event) On such a day your daughter would hear about her first mother (and your first wife). Depending on what is said and her age she would already understand or could decide to ask further questions. Or maybe she is to young and not interested, but would be at least exposed to the concept of death. All this will help to perceive death as something which is an inevitable part of life (we will all die on day). And also that it is normal to be sad about that someone has died.

So nowadays (as my wife and I are not religious), we would have a picnic or lunch (depending on the weather see also ) on such a day with other family members and visit the graveyard. We would including remembering the dead, but normally it we would not stick to it and conversation would evolve to the other family members life.

But maybe it is only you and daughter left with a connection to your first wife (and there is also no other funerals in your family) or other reason not to involve other family member. You could still take her to a trip to the graveyard..

(if you did not go yourself for a long time you maybe want to go first alone to be more secure about how strong your emotions are)

(if there is no grave I am sure you can come up with something similar (take a picture of your first wife with you))

..and do something there (bring flowers, have a picnic, draw some pictures). You do not really have to tell your daughter anything (It can be just some time for father and daughter), but do not hide if you are sad and if she ask questions be prepared. Also at some point you may or may not bring your new wife with you. If you do this regularly (for example every few months), I am sure it will help you (and your daughter) to make peace with the death of your first wife (and mother).

1

Don't wait. Tell her now. I've always known that my bio dad was not in the picture. Knowing prevented that uncomfortable conversation from happening when I was old enough for it to cause resentment. There is no reason to hide it from her. If anything your new wife should want your daughter to know the truth up front. Honesty and openness is always the right choice.

0

The "real" mother in all cases is the one that invests the time, effort and love needed to nurture the child. The person that donates the DNA but has no other investment in the child is not the "real" mother. In this particular case, your wife died in childbirth, which is quite sad, and you have my condolences. I think you should tell your daughter about mom when she turns 18. But for now, you're only sowing the seeds for a rebellious relationship if you tell your child that the woman bringing her up is not her mother. I can imagine all sorts of angry statements "You're not my mom, you can't tell me what to do". That will cause resentment and bad feelings on both sides, and destroy a budding relationship.

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I think you should tell her about this while she is studying in 4th or 5th class. This is because at this age we can manage to control the emotions of the daughter without much issues.

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Saying that your second wife if her real mom is a lie. You shouldn't ever lie to a children.

She was 2 year old as you remarried. It means, she can probably remember, that your wife weren't always with you, but in such a young age she doesn't do it very consciously. I suspect, her emotional binding to you is stronger, as to her mom.

What you can do instead: simply say her, what is this whole thing. She probably doesn't really understand, what is death. Maybe once you can explain her these, and also from God.

Of course, the only way to minimize her emotional stress about this would be the lie what the previous answers are suggesting. Instead, the true solution would be, as you explain things her from the death, explain also this to her.

Btw: the "real mom" is a bad terminology. Your current wife is also mom. There is no "real mom". Maybe you can differentiate them ny their given names.

Children are very adaptive, they can easily learn that they all will grow up, they will age and finally they will die. Comparing this to that her mother is dead... Be simple, clear and honest, as always.

If you are an atheist, your task is much harder.

  • 8
    "Saying that your second wife if her real mom is a lie." No, it isn't. I'm infertile, and had to use sperm donation. I'm still my kids' "real" dad. Same thing for an adoption situation. Calling the new wife "mom" is not a lie - she's got two real ones. "If you are an atheist, your task is much harder" is an ignorant statement, as well. – ceejayoz Sep 2 '16 at 1:07
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    Atheists have an easier time as they at least have the option to tell the truth about anything. – Count Iblis Sep 2 '16 at 1:47
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    I'm suspecting there's a language barrier at work here... No answer here is suggesting a lie. No answer here is suggesting that the OP refer to his second wife as her "real mom". Your comments about God and atheists are confusing, and seem to be making some (perhaps unfounded) assumptions. You say the daughter probably remembers that the wife wasn't always there, but provide no backing for that claim. Same for your belief that the emotional bond is somehow stronger to the father than the second wife. Please consider editing this answer to improve it. – user420 Sep 2 '16 at 14:13
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    I think you're confusing "real mom" with "birth mom." I defy you to tell any adoptive parent that they're not a child's "real" mom or dad. The "real" parent is the one the child attaches to and runs to when they scrape their knee. – Doug R. Sep 2 '16 at 16:01
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    @Beofett She's 3. She currently still remembers being 2. Most people remember a few snatches of things from before they were 2, and those snatches generally include parents. I agree with the rest of your comment, but Morning Star is right that the child is going to remember a bit about not having a mother for a while. – Warren Dew Sep 3 '16 at 2:26
-6

There is nothing wrong with saying that your current wife is her mom. You can tell her about her "real" mom when she is ready for that, as the other answerers here have also suggested. But note that the so-called "truth" is based on an oversimplified model of reality that we find convenient to work with, which isn't correct either.

Consider e.g. that my mom who gave birth to me is alive, but she obviously is not the same person today as she was at the time when she gave birth to me. So, when I refer to her as my mom that is strictly speaking wrong. Also, I'm not the baby she gave birth to. Strictly speaking that baby died a long time ago, as he gradually changed into me. A more correct model of reality would describe us as different persons in each instant of time. Clearly that's a convoluted and very counterintuitive way to describe personal relations. That's why we stick to our oversimplified model. If we are ok. with that then we should not object to giving small children an even more simplified version of reality that they can deal with.

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    As someone that was once that child, I hate you a little for even suggesting this. – RubberDuck Sep 3 '16 at 18:54
  • @RubberDuck 12 years is rather late i.m.o., what matters is that it is told at the right moment, which probably isn't 12 years of age but probably not 3 years of age either. What I'm saying here is that postponing telling the truth (for the right reasons) is not something one needs to feel guilty about because that "truth" isn't the "real truth" anyway. When we grow up we tell ourselves lies about life to be able to live without worrying about things we can't change. E.g. we hide the fact that we're all going to die and that life is actually rather pointless. – Count Iblis Sep 3 '16 at 19:24
  • If you take a hard enough line on what constitutes truth, then it becomes almost impossible to say anything without lying, but that does not imply that all lies are equally acceptable. – hkBst Sep 4 '16 at 13:08
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    Count Iblis's sophistry could be used to prove that no-one ever has a mother-child relationship except at the moment of birth! Not helpful. – Laurence Payne Sep 4 '16 at 16:18

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