Pants on Fire (A Bit of Parenting Advice)
By Ann Brown
Liar, liar, pants on fire. That was a big topic on the parenting couches this month. According to a random sampling of dozens of you, it appears as though there is an epidemic of crime among the four-year-olds of the nation. This is particularly troublesome to parents, as four- and five-year-olds appear to be, well, capable of knowing better. They also tend to not buckle under interrogation, resorting to such alibis as crossing their arms over their chests and calling us stupid pooper monkey butts. Your old powers are no good in the land of Fours and Fives.
It takes some new thinking.
When a child lies about doing something, we often fixate on busting them, interrogating them, forcing a confession, and then exacting a promise from them to never, ever, ever do it again. Unfortunately, that strategy – however tempting and well intentioned – does not allow for the teachable moments that really get to the heart.
Most kids will confess their crimes if the spotlight isn’t on them. Days, weeks, later, he might mention, “I took a toy from school and put it in my pocket.” Then comes the inevitable silence in which all things are possible.
Try not to blow it at this point. Like I always did. And like most of us do.
Instead of jumping on the moment, letting loose a tirade of “how could you?”s and “you know better than that”s and “WHY???”s (all of which usually just send a child into dummying up and calling for an attorney), take a breath and say, “I am really glad you told me about it.”
Then…..say nothing. At least for a few seconds. Allow your child to fill the silence with whatever else she wants to say. Practice your neutral face. (Go on. Go to the mirror and practice it. I’ll wait here). Remember that the more you fill your child up with YOUR thoughts and words on the subject, the less you are allowing safe communication to happen, and the less your child will want to come to you to talk about things like this. So, breathe. Listen. Count your teeth with your tongue. If you are a woman, do 25 Kegels. If you are a man, quietly squeeze whatever it is you’ve got going on down there.
Then, say to your child again, “I am really glad you told me.” Ask her if she feels better now that she isn’t holding that secret anymore. Talk about how holding a secret like that can feel heavy, like a big rock, and how the way to not have to hold the rock is to talk about it.
The more you can begin by validating that it feels better to unload your secrets, the more your child will talk to you.
Most times, if we can stay neutral and allow the child to continue talking, he will begin to cry. This is also a teachable moment. You can say, “you know, crying means you know you made a very wrong choice when you stole that toy. It’s good that you understand it was wrong, because that will help you make better choices next time.”
You can also brainstorm with your child about what to do when you see something that you really, really, really want, but can’t have. We all feel that way – we can be a blueprint for our kids for dealing with the draw of “I want it”, which can lead to “therefore, I am gonna take it.”
I know it’s a kinda inside-out way to approach a confession. However, validating the physical feeling of holding a secret and then feeling better when you confess can go a long way in helping your kid get to his moral compass. And in the end, it is your child – not you – who is going to have to read that compass and choose the path.
And that’s the truth.