Honesty is the best policy, in parenting as well as in life

I have never lied to my son, not intentionally at least, not yet.  Sounds like a lie, right?  Well, I have made it my mission to avoid even the whitest of lies, the silliest of embellishments, and the most innocent of nudges.  Why do I do this to myself?  I mean, everyone lies a little, right?   The simple, honest truth is that I want my son to trust me, down to the last word.  

No one will argue with me that honesty is usually the best policy, but not even my husband sees eye to eye with me on an all honesty, all of the time policy.  

What’s the harm in using parenting cliches?  We have heard them our whole lives.  “If you don’t eat your dinner you won’t grow up to be a big boy.  Don’t you want to be a big boy?” Grandmas coo.  “You are not getting out of the high chair until you finish your dinner,” Mommies warn.  “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t play with any of your toys tonight,” Daddies threaten.  These are extreme examples, but you get the picture.

These types of seemingly harmless comments just slip out of people’s mouths without thought.  Maybe they were what we were raised with and so we believe this is how kids should be persuaded, through fairy tales, threats, and hyperbole.  I know the point is to coax kids into doing what we ask, but the truth is, we don’t really care if they finish their dinner tonight or not (just one more bite would do) and no one is really going to leave their kid in the high chair over night!  So why say things that aren’t true?  You just make yourself out to be a liar!

In our house, my husband likes to tell Beau things like “There isn’t any more banana, Beau,” if he has already had enough for today (and we are talking about the sickeningly sweet Trader Joe’s dried bananas that are essentially his baby crack!).  I know that seems like a harmless approach to keep Beau from getting sick on this treat, but it drives me crazy to hear!  Why not just tell him the truth? “You have already had enough banana for the day.  Let me get you something else.”   

To be clear, my husband is the most honest, honorable person I have ever met.  He keeps me honest in the rest of my life.  But when it comes to certain little comments, he defends them as simply being easier than fighting with him over tiny things like more bananas.  He just wants to protect Beau.  What’s the harm in telling him a meaningless fib to avoid a conflict?    

I understand his point, but it isn’t enough for me.  Everything we say to our children matters – every single time.  This may sound like a huge burden on parents, and it is, but it is critical.  Our words paired with our actions set the foundation for how well our child trusts or doesn’t trust us, and these bonds of trust are what will carry our relationship through the most stormy of waters later in life.  

From day one, children are constantly watching, listening, and learning. Kids are literal little sponges who absolutely do not understand hyperbole or sarcasm.  They need the truth even if it means an argument might ensue.  A) They need to learn how to accept the word “no” and deal with not always getting their way.  B) They need to know that you will follow through with your statements.  C) You want them to believe you when you speak.  D) Trust goes both ways!  If I offer him the bad news that he may not have another banana,  he learns that I believe he can handle the truth!  Me trusting him is just as important to the strength of this relationship as him trusting me.       

There are times when my husband complains to me, “He only listens to you.”  I argue that that in itself is hyperbole, but I digress.  Perhaps when it comes to listening to Mommy, he has learned that I am not hiding the truth.  I have trained him to trust me by showing him that he can trust me in even the littlest, most harmless situations.  If I tell him there are no bananas and then he goes into my purse and finds the bag, which he has started doing, he will start doubting other things I say and testing me in other areas.  I would rather have a lot of little battles early on then a big one about trust issues later.    

So what about big things like Santa Claus, you ask?  Am I depriving my son of our most beloved Western traditions because I refuse to tell a lie?  No, so far I have just emphasized tales like these as being just that, tales.  “Look, there is a man dressed up like Santa Claus over there” or “In the story, Santa Claus brings toys to good little girls and boys.  Are you a good little boy?  Would Santa bring you toys?”  I don’t need him to actually believe — and fear — Santa in order to get him to enjoy the holiday season and to be a good little boy.  Now, how to handle the tooth fairy?  We aren’t there yet and I am still working on how I will that handle that one.  I am open to suggestions!

And what about the truth about our own less-than-perfect moments?  My husband is adamant that he will not share his personal transgressions with Beau and I respect his wishes to maintain a blemish-free image in his son’s eyes.  He says he will admit that he is not perfect, but that he will lie in an effort to protect his son from making the same mistakes he did.  

I, on the other hand, while not advertising my teenage troubles, will certainly open up to him in appropriate detail if he ever asks me about or needs guidance and support with particular issues.  My hope is that because I have told him the truth his whole life, he will trust coming to me when he ever needs sage advice.

I need my son to trust me.  I know how difficult the teenage years are.  Building a relationship with my son that will withstand his adolescence is of the utmost importance to me.  I know that relationship started the day he was born and that we are forging it every day, with every word and action.   

The other day, Beau asked Daddy for a yogurt at an inopportune moment. Daddy said, “There isn’t any yogurt in the fridge.”   I couldn’t help myself.  “Really?” I asked.  “Is that the truth?” knowing full well what the truth was.  “No,” he replied.  “Then why say it?  It isn’t true.  Just tell him he can have it in a little bit or even that he has to wait until tomorrow,” I needled.  “I don’t know.  I guess it’s just a habit.  I will work on it,” he said.  “Thank you,” I replied.  

Habits are hard to break, but some are absolutely worth breaking.  Honesty is the best policy.  Someday, when I have to have a sit down with Beau to discuss his own telling (or not) of the truth, I will share that old adage with him — and he will believe me.  

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