A lesson in approachability and honesty

Effie2 (2)I returned home after a night out at a friend’s house. It was late. The house was dark and quiet. My husband and kids were asleep. I was looking forward to taking a hot shower, to complete my relaxing evening with friends — a rare treat I promise to repeat more often in an effort to claim more “me” time and which is possible now that my older child is approaching a double-digit age.

As I entered the shower room, I noticed the towel placed on the floor was very wet. I figured the kids certainly enjoyed their shower time. I also found a pair of wet scissors and a bunch of hair on the tub. I wasn’t sure if it was my daughter’s or my son’s hair. I looked in the trash to see if there was more evidence to explain what happened, but there was none. So I put the scissors and hair away and took my shower. Then I kissed the kids goodnight, inhaling the sweet smell of their moist, shampooed hair and went to bed.

When my husband and I woke up in the morning, naturally I asked him about last night’s shower scene. “I noticed a pair of scissors and a bunch of hair in the shower. What is that all about?”

“I don’t know,” is what he said.

“Really? Interesting,” I replied and left it at that.

My 9-year-old daughter was next to wake up. I asked her to come to our bed and cuddle with me, and as we were cuddling away, I asked how she slept and we exchanged a few words. I then said: “By the way, I noticed a pair of scissors and a bunch of hair on the tub. Do you know what that’s about?”

She answered right away. “Oh, Mommy, when I took a shower last night, I had a knot I couldn’t get rid of, so I cut it.” I told her that was fine but encouraged her to ask for help next time.

orange-bar-of-soap-731884-mAt that point, my husband turned around suddenly. “What? That’s how the floor got so wet?” He wasn’t so much angry as surprised. “Last night, you told me the floor got all wet, because the soap slipped out of your hands and you came out of the shower to get it so nobody slips on it. You made up this entire story?”

Our daughter offered an innocent smile and admitted a “yes.”

I asked her why she didn’t tell her father the truth: “Did you think he would get upset?” And she replied that she thought he would.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking about the events of the morning. My daughter is very much “by the book.” She always plays by the rules and sticks to the truth no matter what. Such a blunt, off-the-cuff lie is unlike her. The event itself appears to be of little significance: Big deal that she cut her hair and instead told a story that she dropped the soap. But the implications are significant: She felt the need to be dishonest to avoid an anticipated reaction.

This lesson hit me hard that day.

We have to find a way to let our kids — at any age, any stage — feel free to come to us, to talk to us, to tell us what troubles them with the comfort of them knowing that we will listen, not get upset with them. Yes, we may not always agree with them or support their decisions and actions — it’s our job as parents to be their compass — but they should always feel they can come to us and tell the truth. Or they may end up lying to us and turning to someone else for guidance.

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.

Lying: The Developmental Truth

I stared at the toast lying on top of the trash in disbelief. I was ticked. My four year old told me he had eaten all of his toast and wanted something else to eat. I went into the dining room where he was eating his peaches.

“I thought you told me you ate all your toast?”
“I did.”
“No, you threw it in the trash.”
“No, I didn’t. I ate it all.”

I took him by the hand and led him to the trash. “Look, there’s your toast.” He looked at me like he really didn’t know how it had gotten there.

This wasn’t the first time I’d caught him in a lie and I was frustrated. I couldn’t understand it. I don’t punish my children. I don’t reward them either. What do they have to fear by telling me the truth? My 7 year old had never lied to me. I really believe he’s physically incapable of it. It would alter his universe of science and order too much. But my 4 year old was born with his own personality and had no qualms about chaos. I felt connected to my youngest child. Our relationship was good. From all of my research and involvement with AP, I naively believed that if my parenting was focused on relationship, things like this wouldn’t happen. So why was he lying to me?
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