Family life

Tears at bedtime: Why my kids and I read sad books

When her sons choose "sad books" at bedtime, Susan Goldberg tackles the tough (and tearful) topics.

Photo: Susan Goldberg

Photo: Susan Goldberg

Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

I love bedtime.

I love it for all of the less-suspect parental reasons: it’s a chance for some quiet, cuddly, one-on-one time with each kid. It’s story time. It’s a time for a quick check-in: everything okay? Anything you need to remember for tomorrow? And it’s also an opportunity for grace: even if we had a rough day, or if I yelled, or the boys (or, ahem, their parents) weren’t models of good cheer and selflessness, we come together at bedtime and regroup, kiss and hug, say “I love you.”

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But I also love bedtime because, well, it’s the end of the freaking day. Especially in the winter, when my own urge to hibernate is strong, sometimes it feels as though the evenings are a vehicle toward bed and rest and peace. There’s dinner and clean-up, homework and music practice, usually a bit of screen time, and then there’s also the home stretch of bath and snack and pyjamas and toothbrushing. And once a child has completed all those rituals and is actually in bed, I’m done. Not in a bad way. Just ready to cuddle up and read a story and relinquish any more parental heavy lifting for one more day.

So, last week, when Isaac picked Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly as a bedtime story, followed the next evening by Nicola Campbell’s Shin-chi’s Canoe, I have to admit that I groaned inwardly.

Both are beautiful, well-written books. But the first one deals with the Holocaust, and the second with the Canadian residential school system for Aboriginal children. And reading them to and with my children (well, with Isaac; it’s rare these days that I read anything to my fourth-grader) is pretty much the definition of parental heavy lifting.

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Isaac calls these “the sad books.” He watches me carefully when I read them, and others like them, out loud. He can hear the catch in my throat at the sadness in their simple words. He likes to be on the lookout for my tears, which fascinate and thrill him. “Are you crying, Mama? Why?”

He asks that question — “Why?” — a lot when we read the sad books: Why did the Nazis take away Mr. Marks? Why is that girl hiding in the basement? Why can’t she come out? Why did they want to kill Jewish people? Why did they send Shin-chi and his sister away? Why did they give them English names? Why couldn’t they stay with their parents? Why did the government do that?

In the Holocaust books, children and families like Isaac and our family are the persecuted. In the books about residential schools, we are part of the group that persecutes. Answering the questions, explaining the nuances of these relationships, what it means to be a certain “race” or from a certain cultural background or religion, trying to impress upon him the seriousness of the situation without also giving him nightmares or broaching subjects — mass graves, sexual abuse, the devastating effects on future generations — that seem too adult for him: all this is incredibly tricky ground, even when I have all my wits about me. But at the end of the day, cuddled up in bed, it’s even more difficult. Would you like some genocide with your bedtime stories? No, not really.

Read more: Talking to kids about death>

Still, these aren’t conversations I can — or should — avoid. So, two nights in a row last week, I gathered together my parenting wits for another 10 or 15 minutes and tried to answer his questions as best I could. Obviously, these aren’t the only conversations we’ll have on these subjects — how could they be? — but, to me, each conversation is crucial, as is the larger project of being able to talk openly and honestly with my kids about subjects that are difficult.

Frankly, there will never be “convenient” times to talk to my children about racism and colonialism and ethnic cleansing. But perhaps the end of the day, when I have their full attention and they have mine, when we are safe in bed and perhaps slightly calmer, more reflective — maybe these are in fact the best times, even if it means that the end of the day comes just a little bit later.

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