Parenting: Good Cop
By Ann Brown, Parenting Consultant
The topic this month in parenting group was crime. Lying, cheating, stealing, taking bribes, racketeering – you know, stuff your little kids do that make you wonder if instead of contributing to their college funds you really should just toughen them up for prison. Switch out “The Little Mermaid” for “Oz”. The HBO one.
I bet no one told you about this when you first had your baby. Oh, everyone is lining up eager to describe how much labor contractions hurt and how to use a breast pump and what the consistency of healthy infant poop looks like, right? Well-intentioned parents can talk forever about their children’s poops, to the point where you – newly pregnant with your first baby – are backing away as fast as you can to get to your car so you can barf, but do people ever tell you about the really scary stuff? That a four-year-old will smile at you with chocolate-covered teeth and swear he did not eat the candy bar? That your preschooler will steal, and not for noble Robin Hood-give-to-the-poor reasons? That your first grader will tell her teacher that the reason she forgot her homework is that her mother went into the hospital and is in an iron lung due to polio?
Oh wait, that was me.
Yeah, that was one of my best lies. And I think I really had my first grade teacher going for a while. I mean, how can you not believe a little girl who can describe in detail the pain of polio and the sound of the iron lung in which her mother is caged?
Well, unless you take into account that the teacher had seen my mother – healthy and energetic. And mobile – only the day before at a PTA luncheon. Oh, and also if you take into account that polio was eradicated, like, fifteen years before I told the lie.
My point is, kids lie. And if it is 1960 and the kids watched the movie, “The Five Pennies” enough times, they can even lie very well with amazing detail and pathos about polio. Especially if the star of the movie, Danny Kaye, looked so much like their own dad that they worried that they would get polio just like Danny Kaye’s daughter in the movie.
But enough about me.
There are a lot of reasons little kids lie. Most of them are benign and temporary. Still, it’s not enough to just sit back, hit the Cabernet and hope it will pass. Although generally, that is my advice about pretty much everything else in life.
The hardest thing to do is to not put your little liar on the hot seat. Picture this: You have just told your preschooler for the gajillionth time that the candy is going up into the very high cupboard because he is having a hard time remembering not to eat it when it is on the kitchen counter. You say this without rancor or threat. Because, you know, you are awesome.
You go to the bathroom.
You come out of the bathroom.
You sense something is wrong. You can’t exactly put your finger on it but the universe has shifted an inch.
You walk by your preschooler’s room. He is very quiet. Too quiet. He jumps up when he sees you. He smiles. Three-quarters of his teeth are covered in chocolate. As are his Leggos. And everything else he has touched in his room.
You say, “Did you eat that candy? The candy I told you not to eat?”
He looks at you as if you have just accused him of murdering kittens.
“NO!” He yells indignantly. “I didn’t eat any candy!”
Okay. Let’s pause here. There are two ways this deal can go down.
You: What do you mean, you didn’t eat the candy? I see it on your teeth. And your toys. Tell me the truth: did you eat that candy?
Perp: I said NO!
You: You are not telling the truth.
Perp: Yes I am.
You: No you aren’t.
Perp: Yes I am!
You: No you aren’t!
Perp: YES I AM!
You: (You can’t say anything more because your head has exploded.)
Now, granted, that scenario allows you the temporary satisfaction of interrogation when you know you are right. But the problem is, you cannot force a confession out of someone who is not gonna give it up. Plus, even if your kid does finally confess, what was the learning moment there? Other than never to let yourself run out of wine again.
So. Scenario Two
You (in a neutral voice, as if reporting a crime scene on local TV news): I see chocolate all over your teeth. And all over your toys.
Perp: I did’t eat it. I didn’t do it.
You: Uh-oh. Those Leggos are going to be ruined. And ants can come into your room. Hold on (and you exit the room).
Perp: I SAID I DIDN’T DO IT!
You return to his room with a towel. Or sponge. Or bowl for the Leggos.
You: I’ll start wiping these Leggos and you collect the dirty trains. Before the ants come (or substitute whatever reasonable thing might happen).
Perp: But I didn’t do it.
You: Mmm….(as you silently wipe down the toys)
Sounds weird, huh? But let me tell you, this way you are OPENING the pathway to communication. In a slightly devious, manipulative way – true – but it’s still better than putting your child on a hard chair, shoving a bright light over his face and demanding a forced confession.
Yes it is better. I see you shaking your head at me.
So, while you and your child are silently collecting the chocolate-covered toys and you are saying casually to him, “Wait, there’s some chocolate near your eye. Let me get it before it gets into your eye”, you do this:
You wait. You let the silence do its work. But silence can only do its work if it is silence without fear or threat in it. So be cool. Be patient. Trust. Do 25 Kegels to pass the time.
Later – maybe five minutes later, maybe five days later – the subject will come up again. Usually it happens during a cuddly moment. Your kid’s in the bath that night, for instance, and he says, apropos of nothing, “I ate the chocolate today when you told me not to.”
And it will be the space you gave him that allowed for his own moment of truth. And that will make it genuine. And meaningful.
And then you can say, “I am so proud of you for realizing that telling the truth was the right thing to do.”
And then you can talk about how hard it is to keep ourselves from eating candy. And how tempting things can be in this world. And how we all struggle with stuff like that. Which will bond you with your child. And model that we need to make a choice in everything we do, that doing the right thing doesn’t always come easily.
And THAT is a lesson well-learned. Honest. I’m not lying.
Ann Brown is available for private parenting consultation. Please contact the office for her schedule and fees