Yesterday was my daughter’s 5-year physical. My kids have always enjoyed going to the doctor and this appointment was no exception. Before we were set to go though, she wanted to know if she was going to have any shots.
I told her the truth which was that I wasn’t sure. I knew that kids needed to have three chicken pox vaccines before starting kindergarten, but I didn’t know if L. had had three yet or not. (I had gone through an afraid-of-vaccines stage where I had delayed vaccines for as long as possible. Can’t remember now why this seemed like a good idea at the time.)
My daughter trusts me and so she took this answer at face value. Why wouldn’t she? I am a grown up, and in her eyes, I know everything. Also, I’m her mom, and at this point in her life, that makes me her most treasured person in the whole world. At night, when it’s my turn to put her to bed, she will run her hands all over my face and whisper sweet-nothings to me. “You’re my favorite person,” she’ll say. “I love you more than anyone. More than God.”
My daughter’s trust in me can be heart-breaking and I would never want to break that trust. I want her to know that I am her rock, her one person in this world who will tell it to her like it is, with no bullshit and no I’ll give you the answer that is the most convenient for me crap.
Then we got the doctor’s office where apparently telling a 5-year-old she will be getting 3 shots is simply not done until said child is safely restrained on her parents lap.
As I checked her in, L wanted me to ask the receptionist, whether she would have any shots. And so I asked her. “Five?” she whispered, holding up her five fingers. “I think so.”
“She thinks so,” I repeated back to L. “But we’ll check with the doctor to find out for sure.”
First though came the nurse and measurements. L., like most little kids, took these tasks most seriously, standing carefully on the scale and then against the wall with her knees straight. She asked the nurse about the shots. The nurse said she didn’t know, that the doctor would have to check in her computer. You could tell she was lying though because her voice went way up.
I began to feel badly for my daughter. It was such a simple question! Why didn’t anyone have the balls to give her an answer?
Finally the doctor came in. She said hello. She opened The Computer. “Excuse me,” said L, in her shy, sweet little voice. “But um, will I be getting any shots?”
And guess what the doctor said? That she “didn’t know” that first she had to check L. all out. Why L. accepted this, I don’t know. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe she was surprised to find out that the all-powerful-Oz didn’t have the answer either. This was The Doctor afterall, and everyone thus far had said that The Doctor would have the answer. Or if not The Doctor, then at least The Computer. But still L. was being told to wait, though I was told on the down-low that she would be getting three: her 2nd HepA, her last polio, and the DDpT.
I bit my tongue at first. The Doctor seemed to think that we shouldn’t tell the truth, at least not yet, that we should let my daughter sit with the uncertainty that something unpleasant might happen in the future, or it might not. The Doctor seemed to think it would be best if my daughter be anxious for bit longer, even though she’d been concerned about the shots since before we left the house — a good hour ago now.
So she checked L’s ears, mouth, nose, throat. She checked her privates (“and you know why it’s okay for me to see you naked, right? Because I’m your Doctor.”) She had her stand and touch her toes. We discussed tooth brushing, flossing, night potty training, and L’s dislike of school. The Doctor seemed surprised that a 5-year-old would dislike pre-school.
“Really?” she said, turning to me to wink. “Well, you know what I think? I think school is really, really important because next year you’ll be going to kindergarten! Won’t that be fun!?”
Nevermind that my daughter, as a pre-schooler, doesn’t really know what kindergarten is, other than another unfamiliar word.
After the exam, once L. got dressed, The Doctor was back at The Computer and Laila again asked about the shots. “Well, right now it’s time for you to play a fun game with your ears and eyes,” The Doctor told her. Did I detect a tone of annoyance in her voice?
That was is it. I couldn’t take it anymore. “Yes,” I told her, “you’re going to have some shots. At least two.” It seems all the vague answers, and subterfuge had rubbed off on me. As if the whole truth would have knocked her over. When in my heart, I know she is not that kind of kid.
The Doctor looked up, perhaps bracing for WWIII. L simply looked disappointed. “Oh,” she said. Just “oh.” Then she had her ears checked, and her eyes and then she got the three shots — one in one arm and two in the other. She cried but she didn’t have to be pinned down. She was clearly scared, but she didn’t scream or yell. And I knew she wouldn’t. Why? Because I know my kid. And my kid does not need to be lied to about shots. I’m not trying to be a show-off; it’s nothing I did to make her this way. It’s just the way she is.
I’m sure many kids do have melt-downs in the doctor’s office. And obviously The Doctor knows many who if told they would be getting shots would try to run out the door, scream and cry. But you know what?
I want my child to trust her doctor. If she thinks her doctor is trying to trick her, that is not cool.
I want my child to trust adults and by extension, the world. I want her to grow up knowing that if she asks a reasonable question, she will get a reasonable answer in return.
I want her to grow up knowing that her questions are important (especially if they have to do with her own well being and body) and will be treated with respect. If she grows up thinking that her perfectly reasonable questions are going to be ignored by adults, that is not cool.
I do not lie to my own kids, or any kids. I respect their serious questions, and hope that they will be able to handle the answers. No, L was not happy to hear that she’d be getting shots, but not everything in life is lollipops and toy stores.
Here’s an idea, how about explaining to her why the vaccines are important? You know, treating her concerns as a (barf) “teachable moment” by using, oh, I don’t know, science and history? It wouldn’t have to take long, I promise.
What if The Doctor had said, “I know shots stink. But you know what? They help keep you from getting some really bad diseases like polio which killed and crippled lots of kids when your grandmother was little. You don’t want to die or be crippled, do you?”
Okay, maybe that’s a little bit too much truth. But you get the idea.