Lying and trust

1167249_venezuelan_harry_potterWe catch children hiding the truth from the time they are quite young. It might be a child who has just scribbled on the wall, who says “no” when you ask her if she did it. It might be a child who points to his brother and says, “He did it!” when you ask him if he spilled the juice. It might be a child who denies taking money from your wallet when you know he helped himself to the $10 that was there. Children will tell you they finished their homework, cleaned their room or brushed their teeth when in fact they did not.

Lying or keeping secrets is a defensive instinct that protects the child from too much vulnerability. Since a child’s greatest need is to maintain closeness and connection with his parents, he has to avoid anything that would create separation.

Separation does not only involve being physically apart, but also having a sense of being different, being less pleasing or significant, not belonging, being unloved or being misunderstood. Sometimes telling the truth sets you up for all of these different experiences of separation, and not only children but adults, too, instinctively avoid these experiences.

Potentially, when children reach the age of approximately 6, they want their parents to know and understand them. This need for psychological intimacy drives them to share their thoughts, feelings and secrets with their parents, making it difficult for them to hide the truth. Without even knowing why, children instinctively come to their parents to tell them what’s on their minds and in their hearts. This includes telling their parents about the trouble they got into!

However, long before this age, this instinct can become skewed.

Children are very vulnerable, and sometimes this vulnerability can become too overwhelming. If a child feels that telling the truth or sharing his secret with his parents might hurt him, then he will have to make the sacrifice of not allowing the relationship to deepen. The vulnerable feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt will prevent him from spontaneously blurting out the truth.

If a child senses his value will be reduced in the eyes of his parents — that they will be angry, disappointed or ashamed of him, or that he is too difficult or too much to handle — he will have to hide aspects of himself from them.

In order to stay inside the relationship, the child is driven to keep secrets to prevent these painful experiences of separation. The thought process that follows: “What my parents don’t know can’t hurt me.”

We need to make it safe for our children to tell us the truth. We need to extend a generous invitation to them to bring all of who they are into the relationship. They need to feel safe to tell us what they are thinking, feeling and experiencing. They need to see that we can handle these things without losing our temper or reacting in a way that alarms or shames them.

We want to make it easy for our children to be dependent on us, so that in any situation, they naturally turn to us to seek our help and guidance. When we see a child is not truthful, it’s our job to convey that we know the truth and we are here to help him make amends.

By trusting in our children’s good intentions, we can be on their side and draw out their mixed feelings about a given situation. We need to make it safe for them to tell their side of the story and then identify the right moment to draw forth other sides of the story and lead them to the appropriate outcome.

Children want to tell us the truth. They want to be good and do the right thing. It’s our role to create the right context in which they can sense that what we know about them can’t hurt them, and that nothing can divide us.

The Clown is Sometimes Serious

bubliny-1207473-mThe clown, the astronaut, the chatterbox, the complainer, the “slob” and many more stereotypes all appear in our families and in our classrooms.

These are the characters that can disturb, annoy, frustrate and anger us, because they interrupt and spoil our agendas. We are convinced that this is how they always are. They make us worry. We wonder if they were born this way and if they are destined to stay this way.

But sometimes “the clown” is serious, and sometimes he is sad. Sometimes the “astronaut” is attentive and focused. Sometimes the “chatterbox” is pensive and quiet. Sometimes the “complainer” is appreciative. Sometimes the “slob” is orderly.

But their stereotyped behavior seems so dominant and convincing, that we can’t see anything else. In fact, we’re not even looking for anything else.

When we think of a child in a certain way, we lock him right into the way we perceive him. Without intending to do so, we imprison children into patterns of behaving. Sometimes when others stigmatize a child, we continue enforcing the pattern, even though we don’t mean to.

Johanne Wolfgang Von Goete, a German philosopher in the late 1700s and early 1800s, is quoted as saying, “If you relate to a person as if he is already capable of what he can be, he will be what he is capable of being.”

What children really want and need from us is to be understood and known. Instead of identifying the child with his behavior, we want to convey an attitude of:

  1. belief in the child, knowing that as he grows up, the character traits we long to see in him will come to fruition;
  2. trust in the child’s good intentions and his desire to be “good” before you try to influence;
  3. desire to truly understand who he is and what he needs from us.

Reb Nachman of Breslav, a Jewish leader also in the late 1700s and early 1800s, taught that every person should be favorably judged, and if we do so, we elevate that person to a level of favorable judgment. We may apply this to adults but forget to do so with children. Are our hearts soft enough to see our children in a favorable light?

A change in the child’s behavior will result from a change in our own perception of the child. When we realize we are seeing only one aspect of the child and that there is so much more that we are not yet seeing, we can begin to appreciate this child for who he really is. Instead of trying to cut out a behavior that might irritate us, we can help bring out other intentions and qualities that we do not as easily see in the child. It’s not “this or that,” but that “this and this” co-exist together.

I remember a story of a boy who was labeled “careless and irresponsible.” He “broke everything he touched.” Fortunately, even though his teacher was “warned” about his behavior, she did not see him as careless and irresponsible. She knew he had the potential to take responsibility. She gave him small jobs — and then bigger jobs — that would help this potential grow.

When a child feels confident within the relationship with his parent or teacher, he can rest in this relationship. This rest frees him to take responsibility, venture forth into new experiences and feel confident. The parent or teacher conveys:

“I am here for you. I care about you. I believe in you. Your very presence is a source of delight. I am your answer, and you can always count on me. When things don’t go the way you would like, I am here to offer you comfort. I do not want to shape you but to accompany you on your journey of discovering your many abilities.”

This is the nourishment that a relationship of secure attachment provides.

We all have the capacity to be a clown, to be forgetful, to be irresponsible, to complain sometimes, and we all have the capacity to be the opposite of all these things sometimes. We are all human. Surely if we can see this in ourselves, we can accept this in our children and students, and develop the necessary patience to support their development and wait for the qualities of maturity to develop in their right season.

Seeking an Answer, Being the Answer

looking-at-the-sea-1282219-mA mother of a son, who was already married and had a family of his own, told me of the time he was much younger and in love with a young woman who rejected him. This happened during his army service, and he would call his mother night after night, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning, to talk to her about his loss and sorrow, until eventually he recovered.

The reason this mother shared her story with me was because of a different soldier in her son’s unit who also had a love who rejected him, but the relationships in his family were broken and he had no one with whom he was close to unburden his sorrow and be comforted. He could not recover from his loss; it cut too deep, and he committed suicide.

Suicide is one of the many faces of aggression – self disparagement and self attack. It is rooted in deep frustration that cannot find its way out through a period of mourning, and it cannot find its way to the thoughts and feelings that can temper its expression. The processes of first finding our sadness and then our tempering elements are human processes that help us keep our perspective on life and develop the resourcefulness and resilience we need to adapt to the circumstances that come our way. In helping children grow up, our thinking must be oriented toward supporting these processes and paying attention to the signs of them becoming stuck.

A teenage girl who was coping with many different sorts of problems wrote her mother the following note:

“I have no reason to live. If this is what my life has to be like, I would rather not go on with it. I am not depressed. I just don’t believe my life will ever be any different and so it’s not worth living. But I know what that would do to you. And so I live for you.”

Of course we want our children to have their own reasons for living. We want them to wake up in the morning and look forward to living their lives to the fullest, setting goals for themselves, feeling excited about their direction in life, defining and working toward fulfilling their dreams. It takes time for a growing child to find his own reasons to live. “And so I live for you” is a pretty good place to start.

As the mother of the young man who lost his love, recovered and continued building his life, we want to be the answer for our children. This mother discovered and felt deep gratitude for the power of the relationship she had developed with her son over the years. We want to be that place where our children can turn when life is dismal and all seems lost. This is the shield from the pain cutting too deeply. We want to be a safe haven of warmth and comfort.

Being this person is the essence of being a parent.  It means finding this capacity deep within our hearts. It requires compassion and a yearning to be able to give this of ourselves. Out of this grows our children’s own individuality, vitality and will to live.