A conversation with a friend today inspired me to search the archives of my old website for an article I wrote about ten years ago after seeing a father teasing his young son. Here it is:
Do you tell your children the truth, and model congruence between your words and behavior?
In other words, are you trustable? Examples:
Not trustable: Telling a toddler "No more . . . juice is all gone. All gone," as you are hiding a half full juice pitcher behind your back.
Trustable: "We're all done with the juice for now. I'm going to put it away and you can have more at snack time."
Children are biologically programmed to look to their parents and elders as reference points. Ideally, they will have their perception and experience of the world validated.
What happens in their circuitry when they see a half full pitcher of juice, and a person they trust is telling them it's all gone?
They learn not to trust their own perceptions.
They learn to locate their reference point for truth outside of themselves and their experience.
When push comes to shove, the young child must acquiesce to the authority of the ones they depend on for survival. To do otherwise jeopardizes his health and safety.
Children are wired to create a bond with their caregivers. Betraying their truth seems like a small price to pay to preserve that bond, since their lives depend on it: Ok, daddy, there's no juice. My eyes must be deceiving me. Ok, mommy, I'm not hungry yet, because I just ate an hour ago, and these signals from my stomach aren't as trustable as you and the clock are.
Children need to maintain a relationship with their caregivers more than they need to tell the truth. And at the same time they are laying down the gridwork for their future interactions with the world. What will be the foundation?
When inner and outer truths align, children learn to trust their perceptions and their world.
When inner and outer truths conflict, it's a crap shoot as to which reality they will ultimately choose to align with; their own experience, or external authority . . . and how they will feel about the betrayal.
Humans are resilient, and most of the time our kids do eventually come around to forgiving our ignorant blunders in raising them. (Some take longer to do this than others.) Ignorance, while not an excuse, is understandable.
But what about intentional betrayals? Teasing is an extreme form of manipulating the sacred bond between caregiver and child. In my opinion, it is totally inappropriate for an adult to tease a young child in any way, shape or form.
Children take our words at face value, and the kind of humor used in teasing is beyond the reach of most kids. (Maybe even most adults...) Teasing is bullying, pure and simple.
It is not funny to bring a child to tears by telling him that his blanky is gone forever just so you can be the hero later and produce it out from under your chair. Teasing is a power trip, and is not the kind of humor that leads to bonding. It leads only to defense and shielding, and teaches your child to be skeptical of you. And then we wonder why our kids don't obey us immediately!
When you tease, you lose credibility.
(time out; I need to acknowledge that I'm carrying a lot of intense energy on this topic. It really does push my buttons. Ok, so now let's move on to...)
The flip side -- have you made it safe for your children to tell you the truth?
When the truth is that your child hates the dinner you just spent hours cooking, what happens when she tells you?
When the truth is that your child was afraid of the consequences and so told a lie, what do you do when you hear the confession?
When the truth is that your child really misses his noncustodial parent, how do you react?
If you really value honesty, you must be able to hear your child's truth as an expression of their state of mind/heart, not as an attack on you personally, or an indication of tarnished moral character.
If their communication results in a withdrawal of your attention, affection or approval, you can be pretty sure they will think twice before being honest about that topic again. Children will trade their truth for your approval and love in a heartbeat.
This is not to say that confessions of wrongdoing are without consequence. But we must realize that a confession is a gift given in trust, and treat it as such.
Of course a child who confesses to stealing will still be required to return the stolen property. But we can help ensure she feels relieved of the burden of maintaining the lie, and is then supported in making restitution and restoring her integrity. We need to preserve open channels of communication, and make sure that the act of speaking the truth creates a team rather than leading to banishment.
If we wish to assist the next generation in building upon a foundation of integrity, trust and honesty, then we need to honor the truth in all its manifestations. We need to offer them our truth congruently, and receive theirs with an open heart and mind.
Our children need to know that we love them, value honesty, and will be on their side helping them learn from the necessary mistakes that go with the territory of growing up.
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, visit www.karenalonge.com