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Fantastic fibs our parents told us

19 February 2018

From vegetables making your hair curly and the monster that will get you if you don’t stay in bed, to your eyes going square if you watch too much TV, we were all told myths and white lies by our parents to keep us happy – or make us behave.

Ice cream van
"If the ice-cream van was playing its music as it drove through our local streets, that meant it had run out of ice cream."

Tony Parsons, 64, journalist and author

One holiday we were driving through Norway passing some of the most fabulous scenery in the world, but I sat in the back reading On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and not paying attention to any of it. My parents turned round and said, ‘If you always have your nose buried in a book, no good will come of it’. They revered education, but I was prone to let real life pass me by.

Yet, having my head buried in books is what has given me my life and happiness, and I’ve always felt sad that they didn’t get to see the success I’ve had as a writer. As Morrissey sang, ‘There’s more to life than books, you know. But not much more’. CH

Tony’s novel Girl On Fire is out on 8 March

Sherrie Hewson, 67, actress

I have never had my ears pierced because my mother, Joy, a top model and ballroom dancer, told me that if I did, little black mites would come and drink the blood where the hole had been made and feed on my ear lobe.

They would then go into my ear, through my brain and into my forehead where they would form a lump. I’d have to pierce this with a pin and all the little black mites would run away. I believed it for years.

Why did she tell me this? Because her mum had told it to her. Joy didn’t have her ears pierced either. PF

Bruce Butler, 68, retired miner, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

Me mam was interested in fortune-telling and was very friendly with this woman who used to come over to lead a sort of séance. Mam would pick up all sorts of bits of ‘advice’ from her that she’d pass on to us. One of them was, ‘When the clouds gather near, you’ll lose someone dear’. I guess it had something to do with the idea of a ‘gathering storm’.

The problem was that we happened to live on a hilly bit of Nottinghamshire where you could see about ten miles of horizon. We saw a lot of clouds. Of course, this made me mam desperate for news of anyone who’d popped their clogs, just so she could tie it in with the weather. As she got older, she greeted every storm cloud as if it was the Grim Reaper himself.

Ironically, on the day Mam died, it was sunny with a clear blue sky. That must have annoyed the hell out of her. DS

Sheila Stebbings, 65, retired beauty therapist, Dorset

My best friend Annie had curly hair, but mine was dead straight and I hated it. I wasn’t keen on vegetables either, but my parents, who owned a little hairdresser’s, told me that they’d give me hair just like Annie’s. So I’d pull a face and force myself to eat them, hoping they’d have the desired effect. Of course, they never did.

The irony is that, when I got to my teens, straight hair became all the rage, and the girls with curly hair (Annie included) started ironing their locks. So I had the last laugh, even though I did eat a lot of soggy cabbage and overcooked carrots for nothing! MP

Stanley Johnson, 77, author, former politician and father of Boris

After the war, my mother would take my siblings and me to spend the summer holidays at my widowed grandfather’s house in Cornwall. I wouldn’t call him irascible, but my mother always made sure that we weren’t a nuisance.

If we ever looked bored, inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem The Camel’s Hump, she’d remind us that if we didn’t have ‘enough to do-oo-oo’ we’d grow a horrible ‘cameelious hump’.

So, if it was too wet for the beach, we’d busily play games, read or work on our little stamp collections. I’m sure this is the reason all the Johnson family are so frantically active. CH

Stanley’s political thriller Kompromat is out now

Vivien Lawless, 55, introduction agency manager, London

Our house had a pond at the bottom of the garden and my parents always worried that I’d fall in and drown. So they told me that the slimy water was full of frogs and if I went too close to it the frogs would jump out at me and turn my skin green. I stayed well away.

Long after I’d grown up and realised this was just a silly scare story, I still had such an ingrained disgust for pond life that when I bought a house with a pond, the first thing I did was have it filled in. MP

Peter Fischer, 57, newspaper sub-editor, London

My baby sister was born when I was four, so I was terribly jealous of all the love and attention she got.

I’d been perfectly happy as an only child, but the arrival of little Evelyn changed that. I even went so far as to suggest that we should put her out with the rubbish!

So Mum and Dad cleverly explained that they’d created her especially for me, as a prize for being such a wonderful son and that I should be very proud because not everyone got one.

This made me feel rather pleased with myself, and Evelyn and I became really close.

Many years later, I introduced her to a mate, one thing led to another, and she is now happily married to him. So I suppose I gave her a prize, too. MP

Laurence Robertson, 59, web designer, London

I was a nervous child and scared of the dark. My mother, who came from a rural Irish family, reassured me that I had my own ‘lucky leprechaun’, who was always there to make sure I was OK. This creature became more significant to me than Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I outgrew my fears after a few years: I’m sure the leprechaun played a part.

My mother was terminally ill four years ago. Shortly before she passed away, I went to see her in hospital with a bunch of flowers. Inside was a card of a smiling leprechaun. My way of telling her I loved her. MP

Nadia Sawalha, 53, broadcaster and actress

I know it’s old hat, but I really did believe that if you pull a face and the wind changes, your face will stay like that. I was absolutely petrified. Whenever the wind whipped up, I would try to get my face into what I thought was a really nice expression. My two sisters and I would also pull faces then blast each other with the hairdryer to see what would happen.

I promised myself I would never repeat the myth to my children, but I did and they were petrified, too. They’d say, ‘Don’t be silly, Mum,’ but then, ‘Could this really happen?’ JP

Nadia & Kaye Disaster Chef by Nadia Sawalha and Kaye Adams is out now

Chandrika Tandon, 63, financier, philanthropist and singer

My Indian mother had a saying or rule for every aspect of daily life. The one I remember most is, ‘If you see a single man coming in as you are leaving the house, come back inside, sit down, drink a glass of water and then leave’. Don’t ask me why, but a single man was seen as bad luck and whatever you were doing that day wouldn’t succeed. You had to drink the water to fool him into thinking you weren’t actually leaving.

The other day, my husband and I were exiting our apartment building when a man walked in the entrance. I made my husband go back into our flat so I could drink a glass of water! I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m a modern woman.’ Unfortunately, I’m now passing this blind superstition on to my daughter. She was educated at Yale and Harvard… DS

Chandrika’s new album Shivoham – The Quest is out now

Stephen Dickenson, 60, media consultant, Hertfordshire

If the ice-cream van was playing its music as it drove through our local streets, that meant it had run out of ice cream. This is what my parents told me, and I accepted it – until one summer day when I was at my friend’s house and the familiar jingle reached our ears.

I was confused when his mum gave us money. I tried to tell him there wasn’t any point going to the van, but he said I was stupid. So I joined him and all the other children queuing up. In fairness to my parents, I’m one of five kids so that would have been a lot of ice cream. But still… CH

Judith Williams, 67, Market Harborough, former teacher

As a child, I used to love apples and, through laziness, would eat the whole thing, rather than throwing the core in the bin. But I stopped when my mother warned me: ‘The pips will grow into a tree in your tummy.’ I seriously thought this was true and I’d have visions of branches growing out of my ears.

I’ve since learned that apple pips can be mildly poisonous but you’d need to finely chew and eat about 200 to receive a fatal dose. I think the truth is my mother was a bit of a snob and just thought the whole eating cores think was rather unladylike. PF

Paula Rentham, 63, part-time school administrator, Surrey

While I was growing up my mother constantly drummed it into me that if I went outside with wet hair (unless it was a scorching hot day, a rare occurrence in England) I would come down with a cold. Maybe even the flu. Possibly pneumonia. So I’d always have to make sure my hair was bone dry and then, for good measure, put a hat on before she’d let me leave for school.

Now I know that you get colds by catching germs from other people, but Mum’s dire warning has stayed with me to the extent that, even though I’m aware it’s based on dodgy science I find myself telling my grown-up daughter the same thing. She just rolls her eyes, naturally. MP

Jonathan Warnick, 70, retired accountant, Kent

I was born in 1947 and post-war food rationing was in force for the first seven years of my life. There was always a shortage of meat in our house and so my mother, like other working-class housewives of the era, would feed us offal instead. She was particularly keen on tripe but rightly sensed that if we knew it was the lining of a cow’s stomach we wouldn’t touch it. So before each tripe dinner she’d tell us that our father had been out hunting the ‘big bad wolf’ and that we were eating ‘wolf meat’. This made it sound exciting and we happily devoured it.

I don’t think we eat much tripe in this country anymore but it’s a tasty traditional dish in France and I still have a soft spot for it. When my wife and I are there on holiday I often plump for the ‘wolf meat’ on the menu. The missus refuses to try it. MP

Stuart Moore, 54, deputy head teacher, Luton

My dad worked in the finance department of Chrysler, the car manufacturer, and he used to teach us to swim at a pool hired by the company’s social club. To encourage us, he said that everyone who swam a width received a certificate from the firm. We were pretty excited when he brought them home. They looked great, mounted on A4 card with the Chrysler logo, so I never doubted they were real.

Until in my early 40s. We were discussing a certificate my own son Stephen had won at infant school. I reminded my parents about the proud day I’d won the swimming certificate. It was then that my dad broke the news that they were the only two in existence, and that he’d made them. PF

Charlie Mackesy, 54, artist, Suffolk

My sister and I loved going for walks with our father through the beautiful countryside in Northumberland where we grew up. But if we ever saw a magpie, my father would take a sharp intake of breath, take off his cap, bow his head and say charmingly ‘Good Morning Mr Magpie, how’s your wife?’.

My father told us that being very polite to magpies was imperative to ward off the bad luck that they bring, as written in the old verse ‘one for sorrow, two for joy etc’. My sister and I copied our father out of fear, as though appeasing some malevolent spirit and even now, long after I’ve stopped talking to magpies, I can’t help the strange feeling I get in my stomach whenever I see one. I stop what I’m doing and remind myself that the palpable unease I feel is most unnecessary as they’re just ordinary birds. Or are they? CH

Andrea Turner, TV presenter

My father would always say if you have your crusts, it’ll put hairs on your chest and make your hair curl. I don’t know why he came up with this – I had curly hair on my head and didn’t want any on my chest. Maybe it’s because he had three girls and he wanted a boy – I’m sure all men want a boy. JP

Anthea is supporting:

As told to Pam Francis, Joy Persaud, Monica Porter, Danny Scott and Caroline Hutton

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