Monday, February 11, 2013

To Tell the Truth

Honesty v. Dishonesty
Truth v. Lies

We all strive to model and teach honesty to our children. And while most of us consider ourselves basically truthful, it is very easy to let the "little white lies" infiltrate our interactions with our kids. Using "Because I said so," instead of admitting we don't have a good reason not to allow a particular activity; telling little ones there is no more (candy, cheese, whatever) instead of using the moment to explain why we limit certain things; trying to convince youngsters that a favorite place (Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald's, the library) is closed, instead of explaining why visiting certain places isn't an everyday occurrence.

On the other hand, I've seen parents go absolutely ballistic if their potty-training two-year-old says, "I didn't peeeeeeee!" while simultaneously sporting a large wet spot on their pants.

In my mind there's a huge difference. And it's not that the parents' behavior is acceptable and the toddler is being deliberately deceptive. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In cognitive development, children go through various views of reality. This is not the world as we adults know it. It is the world through the child's perception. It is the child's reality.

For instance, infants know only their own comfort and discomfort, but they lack the ability to soothe and care for themselves. Infants cry not because they are sinful or manipulative (yes, that was the viewpoint I was taught and even believed in my early years as a parent), but because they are communicating their needs the only way they can.

Once language is introduced, toddlers are fascinated with their communication skills. They believe "words are magic" and can make things happen. This is one reason toddlers have meltdowns when they can't communicate well. Not only are they frustrated they aren't understood, they are also frustrated that the "magic" isn't working!

This "words are magic" stage lasts until almost age five, at which point the child has assimilated enough information to understand that s/he can't change everything by speaking it into or out of existence. Age five marks the beginning of logic and a grasp of cause and effect, which, coincidentally, is also the age most children start school in this country.

So, when a two-year-old insists, "I didn't pee!" it is because s/he believes saying it makes it true.

When an adult says, "McDonald's is closed." (when, in fact, it isn't), the adult is deliberately trying to deceive a child.

The child is being dishonest, but s/he isn't being untruthful. The child knows s/he wet his/her pants, but the child also believes that saying otherwise changes what happened.

The adult is being dishonest, and s/he is lying. The adult knows McDonald's is open, and s/he is also attempting to convince the child of something that is untrue.

Parents often find "white lies" (lies of convenience, in my opinion) acceptable, but rarely take into account their children's cognitive development before condemning the child as a liar, liar with pants on fire.

With my littles, I've found asking, "Is this true, or pretend? Is this true and what really happened, or do you want it to be true?" helpful. I also don't freak out (anymore) if my three year old insists he didn't draw on the wall with marker while sporting marks on his hand (and face, and shirt) and is still holding a marker that matches the color on the walls. I simply point out the evidence contrary to his assertion and tell him that even if he wishes he hadn't drawn on the wall, Mommy knows what he did. And when we make messes, we clean them up. I then hand him appropriate cleaning supplies and supervise his clean up, assisting if necessary. (I also confiscate the markers! If we can't keep the markers on paper, we don't have the markers for a while.)

There is no shaming and accusing. I do express dismay at the mess and gratitude toward being responsible and cleaning up, but I don't harangue or get angry that my child had the audacity to deliberately destroy property and then tell me a bald-faced lie. That's not what happened.

My child made an impulsive choice (because he's three and lacks impulse control). He doesn't understand cause and effect, so he has no concept of the potential damage markers can cause to antique wood finishes or wallpaper. He believes words are magic and that by saying he didn't draw, the marks will magically disappear. That is his reality. That is truth as he knows it.

My job, then, is to teach him about reality. Shaming isn't teaching. Punishment isn't teaching. Modeling and explaining are teaching. Enforcing rules (you make a mess, you clean it up) is teaching. What's more, I am being truthful in my teaching by not over-reacting in order to "scare" him into making better decisions "next time."

I am also being truthful by not saying, "Oh, that's ok, sweetie. Just don't do it again." It's not ok, but it's not a travesty worthy of a mommy-meltdown, either.

In closing, we as parents need to be careful to consistently model both honesty and truthfulness. We also must take care to remember things from a child's perspective are very different from our adult perspectives. A child's truth (or reality) is much different than what we adults know as truth (or reality). It's much easier to graciously correct your child's behavior once you're aware their choices are based on an alternate reality.