The problem of telling little white lies in front of your child

I’m busy that day.

I already donated to your organization.

The meal was delicious.

Thank you. I love it.

Many of us tell these little white lies without a thought believing these “harmless” fibs spare feelings. We say these things to make our lives easier and to avoid conflict.

_hurt-feelings-clipart-hurt-feelings-clipart_1152-648We tell them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings (I love this gift.) as well as excuse our own behavior (Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was terrible.) And many adults don’t even consider these little white lies to be lies at all. But they are. And how are young kids to understand the difference?

How do they differentiate a “fib” to grandma about liking a present and a lie to their parents about breaking a dish? In both instances they do not want to hurt someone’s feeling or have someone mad at them.

And research suggests that when kids hear adults lying, they are more likely to do it themselves. A study from the University of California found that 5 to 7 year olds who were told a lie by an adult were more likely to cheat and then lie about it afterward.

Research also shows that kids lie more as they get older. When you have a toddler, they are very honest (sometimes embarrassingly so). Preschools often lie to avoid getting in trouble. (I didn’t do it.) By the time they are 5, 72% of kids would tell a white lie. It is up to 80% for 8 year olds and up to 84% for 11 year olds.

We tell kids we want them to be honest but then they see us lying or we encourage them to lie to spare someone’s feelings, and they get confused on which one we want. They learn that honesty creates conflict while lying is an easy way to avoid that conflict.

So can you teach your kids to be kind and honest? I think you can. Much as we look at the drawing our kids bring us and not tell them it is horrible but point out something we like, we can teach our kids to do the same. So instead of saying they don’t like the sweater Grandma bought them, they can point out something positive (It is a pretty color, or it is so soft.)

The truth is this is not easy either and can still lead to conflict. Instead of the white lie, “Traffic was terrible,” you would have to admit you left late or misgauged your timing. And if you tell your friend that you don’t want to meet on Friday night (instead of telling them your busy) and suggest another date, you still risk the chance of hurting their feelings. But the truthfulness of your statement won’t be lost on your child. Instead of teaching them to lie, you will be teaching them to be honest. And that is after all what we want, isn’t it?

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You can’t control others – just your reaction

“He won’t play with me,” my daughter complains.

“Honey, you can’t make him play with you.”

Or another time she will come to me in tears.

“Jase called me a baby. I don’t like him anymore.”

“Now, he shouldn’t have done that,” I say, “but you can’t control what your brother or anyone else does. All you can do is control your own actions.”

Both instances reflect a common theme that I often repeat to the kids. You can’t control others. You can only control your own actions.

This is a hard concept for kids to understand. Heck, it is a difficult concept for adults to understand. People are going to say things and do things that aren’t what you want them to say or do.

You rush to tell someone you are pregnant. Instead of the expected “congratulations,” you hear something like. “Oh really? That’s….nice.” or “Again?”

Yep, that wasn’t what you were expecting. You can either choose to let their reaction affect you (whether it is by making you sad, or you challenging them to explain what they meant) or you can let their reaction roll off your back and continue to be happy about your situation. The choice is totally up to you. But how you react, can define how the conversation or even the relationship develops.

If Jase teases Lexie in order to upset her or make her cry, I often tell Lexie the answer is not to give him the response he is looking for. If she just ignored his taunts, he would stop doing them. Or she could tell him that she doesn’t like how he is behaving and won’t play with him. She has many other choices than crying about something he said.

Figuring out that your own actions entail how the conversation is going to go is a hard concept to learn. But lessons abound all over the place for my kids.

A boy on the playground pushes ahead and grabs the last open swing right before Lexie was going to get on it. A classmate makes fun of the shirt Jase is wearing or the way Lexie’s glasses look. I could go on and on. The lesson isn’t that they can’t control these other people. It is all about how they react in these situations.

Does she pull the boy off the swing? Does she call him a name or go tell the playground monitor? Does she shrug it off and find something else to do? Or perhaps she bursts into tears until he gives her the swing.

Does Lexie cry when the person makes fun of her glasses? Does she insult the classmate in an attempt at retribution? Or does she shrug it off and go on her way because she is comfortable with who she is?

It is about teaching my kids that it is their choice on how they handle the situation because they can’t control how others will behave. I can only hope they choose an appropriate reaction to those behaviors.