Thursday, February 14, 2008

teaching my kids to lie

A few weeks ago, a good family friend, Bev, offered to take Little to a local children's museum for the day. She came and got him shortly after breakfast, and they didn't get home until mid-afternoon.

When Bev dropped him off, she said,
"Thanks, Little, I had a great time today. It was really fun to play with you.

Guess what he said?
"I didn't have a good time. It wasn't fun at all."

Now, I know he had fun, because this place is really fun and he is at the perfect age to enjoy its zany pretend bounty, but he is, for some reason I've yet to grasp, interested in the reactions he gets when he says totally negative things. This is okay in the forgiving bosom of the family, most of the time, but I decided it just wasn't okay in this case. This is a good friend, someone we all really respect, who spent most of a day with my child just because she likes him. I was unhappy. With his behavior. It felt deliberately hurtful and disrespectful to me.

After she left, I sat down with Little and explained to him that he doesn't always have to have fun when he goes places that are supposed to be fun for kids, but that when he really doesn't enjoy himself, it is rude to say so. That is, I told him it would be okay to tell me about it after Bev went home, but that as long as she was there, he should thank her politely. To do otherwise, I said, would be to disregard the time and effort she'd expended, and could hurt her feelings.

Two weeks later, the boys and I had to make an unexpected trip to the Syracuse airport. Little was very excited about this, because (go figure) he's come to see air travel as a fun thing. This is not for lack of exposure to airports and airplanes: quite the contrary. He's been back and forth to the West Coast and Hawaii more than a few times. He just really likes airports.

Our trip did not require a visit to the actual airport; all we had to do was jump start Joe's car, on the top level of the parking garage. After the car was duly started and charged, we prepared to head home, much to Little's dismay. It became clear that he really wanted to run around in the airport, at least a little bit.

And so we did.

We discovered that the Syracuse airport has many unexpected charms. It turns out that there's a whole hands-on children's museum about the physics of flight in there, and we all ran around in it for about an hour. We even ate a few overpriced oatmeal raisin cookies, and Little got a chocolate milk, an almost unheard-of treat.

But then it was time to go home, and we had to carry Little out because he was having so much fun he didn't want to leave.

And then, guess what? He had a big huge tantrum in the car. Not because we had to leave, but because, according to him:

"That wasn't fun at all."

"That place was really stupid."

"That was a terrible place, Mama, just terrible."

And then, suddenly, it wasn't okay for him to be honest with me. Suddenly, I really wanted him to lie, and I began telling him exactly why and how. I told him that we didn't have to take him into the airport, that we could have just gone on home as planned, but we'd done it expressly because he'd wanted to. We did it for him, and he should be gracious about it. He should say thank you, not that it was really stupid.

Now, I'm pretty sure he wasn't telling the truth when he was telling me how awful it was; he was just squalling because... uh.... I don't really know why he's sometimes so furiously negative, but I can tell it's a stage and he has to go through it. I think he really did have a good time, and he was just expressing his frustration in an awkward (opposite) way. He can work on the finer points of communication when he gets a little older.

The interesting thing is how deeply uncomfortable I was, both with Bev and at the airport. I am just not happy when he expresses discontent, and I actually tried to teach him to lie about it, just because that's what's expected, socially.

This came up at homeschool playgroup recently. Another mom was talking about an article she'd read about how teaching our children to be polite and grease the wheels of social chit-chat actually teaches them to lie. It probably could have been a really interesting conversation, but there were too many kids running around in a small space, having consumed too much sugar, to allow the moms to discuss much of anything.

The reason for the sugar and the running around?

It was a Valentine's Day party, and the children had just exchanged valentines that said things like:

You're the apple of my eye!

Will U Be Mine?

You Rock! Be My Valentine

You Leave Me Shell Shocked

And so on. Young children exchanging cards expressing all sorts of nonsense they don't feel, for each other or anyone else. Lies lies lies.

When my kids were in school, only some of the children participated in this silly ritual, just the kids who really wanted to do it. We never even considered participating ourselves. It was a good feeling, to be teaching at a school where we could just not observe something like this, and know that there would be no stigma for my kids as a result.

Not so with homeschool playgroup. I felt that we should participate, because we're new to the group and my kids don't know everyone yet. It would be good for them to learn everyone's names and get a valentine in exchange for the ones they hand out. Since this is one of our few social outlets, we'd best participate fully in its rituals.

But I did so minimally. We spent no extra time on this project, either in the valentine preparation or in making a pretty mailbox for them. My children's valentines came home in a brown paper lunch bag with their names written in ball point ink.

And you know what? They haven't even asked about them. Wonder why.


Sandy said...

I don't think you're teaching them to lie. Being polite, gracious, and respectful about things people do for you isn't dishonest at all. God, if we all told people what we were really thinking, then the world would fall apart pretty quickly. The airport thing ... well, I guess you have to learn not to be rude to your mom too? And to be able to remember that 5 minutes ago you were in fact having fun? But that doesn't mean we can't express disappointment, dissatisfaction when appropriate. Remember your school's social curriculum? Learning to work out conflict constructively?

The valentines sentiments made me laugh out loud. I don't always say what I'm thinking, but I'm also extremely uncomfortable with this forced sentimentality. My daughter is returning to her valentines bag only because it contains a heck of a lot of candy.

I had a guest in my classroom today. He works with teachers who work with at risk students. Students who say FU to teachers on a regular basis, teaching teachers not to take this personally, and how to teach social behaviors to students who don't have great role models in their lives, to put it mildly. So much of what he says seems platitudinal and obvious but it comes down to teaching relationships as the basis of everything.

Oh, and as I was writing this, I just had to speak very sternly to the girl. Raising my voice etc. Not good modeling of constructive conflict resolution. Valentines candy privledges have been revoked.

Granna Judy said...

I've been thinking about this post, and I have to agree with Sandy -- you aren't teaching them to lie, you're teaching them to consider others' feelings. If Little didn't have a good time with Bev (or more accurately, if for some reason he didn't want to admit that he did), he could have said "It was nice of you to take me." That's not a lie and it also isn't hurtful.

Granna Judy said...

And the airport thing -- he was feeling negative about leaving, so perhaps he struck out with the only negative words that came to mind. Maybe an approach would be to ask him to figure out what he's feeling negative about (leaving a fun place).

Eve said...

I agree with Sandy. I think what you are trying to do is teach your child to be gracious. If someone does something for me, I want to let them know that I appreciate the sentiment. Even though at a certain age a child might not understand the importance of what they are saying they catch on.

Tara said...

This can be a hard area – and one that doesn't automatically become easier with age. My daughter was trying to graciously let a friendship go over the summer. When her friend called and asked her to come over she felt odd saying, "No, I don't like to play with you anymore," so she would say we were going somewhere or had other plans. I felt this was acceptable in the situation. Then the girl started calling to check and see if we were really home and the mom started cross-checking my blog to see if she could "catch us" or if we were excluding her daughter from anything. Oh my gosh... what a mess! I wish I would have bit the bullet in the beginning and been truthful. It would have been awkward but saved us a lot of heartache later.
Teaching graciousness is something else entirely. I think you are handling it well.

Tara said...

I should say teaching graciousness for a gift or act of kindness is something else entirely...

shaun said...

I'm with the others, with the addition that in our house I have started reminding my 8yo that mom is not a repository for all your bad feelings. I think that's a really easy role for adult females of the house to fall into, and I am guarding against it. I try to be very open to my kids' negative feelings, even their negative feelings about me, but I work on teaching them to express those feelings without allowing me to be a punching bag. I'm not sure my 4yo is at an age to be clear on that concept, but once we started talking about it my 8yo really was, and it made a difference.

elsie deluxe said...

I have to tell you that discussions like these are totally keeping me going. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I started working on this blog in its current incarnation. Thank you very much, for your time, and your thoughts, and for responding.