Q.My husband was arrested when our son was 11 months old, which was traumatic. The two of them were extremely close and the boy cried for three months after his father left.

For the first three years we visited him in a Texas prison at least twice a year. Now, however, our son is 5 and old enough to realize that his father is incarcerated.

I am torn about taking our son to see him anymore or even telling him that his father is in prison. He is a bright boy, though, and I know that I will have to explain the situation to him soon.

Should I keep taking him with me when I visit his father? Or should I shelter him as much as possible? My husband will be in prison for at least five more years.

A.If your son cried for the first three months after his daddy left home, his tears may have reflected your sadness, as well as his own. Even though he was quite young at the time, he would have realized that you were unhappy and this could have intensified his reaction.

Don't feel guilty if you let your little boy see your sorrow, however, because honesty makes a family strong. That's why your son should know the truth about his dad, but tell him in words that will make sense to him.

He'll understand if you say, "Daddy is in this place because he made a big mistake" and then respond to whatever specific follow-up questions he asks you, but do it simply and clearly. It's much better to add more details as he gets older -- as you would do if he were asking you about sex -- than to overwhelm him with information before he asks for it.

And it is for honesty's sake that you should keep taking your boy to see his dad, since you obviously think that he is a safe person to be around.

Surely you wouldn't be standing fast and waiting for your man to return if you thought he would ever be abusive to you or your son -- either physically or verbally -- or if you thought that he might be dangerous in some other way.

If you don't continue these father-son visits, the bond between them will begin to disintegrate and they will be strangers to each other when your husband finally comes home. Also, this would happen at about the time when your son would be hitting his pre-teens or early teens -- that supersensitive interval when conformity becomes more important to young people than almost anything else.

This is much less likely to happen if your son frequently sends him some of the best pictures he has drawn, or a few of his class papers or some cookies he has made himself, and if your husband writes to him regularly. There will be times, of course, when communication will get tiresome or your son will be too busy or your husband will get too depressed to write, but the habit, once started, can be picked up again rather easily.

You can bet that your son will have trouble explaining his father's predicament to his friends, however, and this could present a problem for him.

His peers won't question him much, particularly in his early school years, if your son tells his friends that his dad is "away" and that he's "working" out of town -- for prisoners do work -- and if curious parents ask him more questions, he should tell them to ask you. Fortunately, they seldom do.

This may seem duplicitous, but children can be so candid that they seem cruel when they tease each other, and if adults find out that your husband is incarcerated, they may refuse to let their children attend your son's birthday party or they may tell other parents.

There's no reason to encourage gossip at the expense of your child.

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