COPARENTING DILEMMAS: Truth and Lies
People lie. Adults lie. Children lie. When grown-ups are asked to record their own lies, they admit to about one lie for every five social interactions. Adults lie about once a day, on average, and college students are double that. Most of these lies are white lies. They are meant to make others feel good or to prevent others from feeling bad or to avoid embarrassment.
Unfortunately, our white lies help our children become comfortable with being insincere, disingenuous, and dishonest. Most of us end up teaching our children -- through our own white lies -- that honesty can create conflict/discomfort, and dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict in social situations.
Children at a very young age know the difference between a white lie and lying to cover their own misdeeds, or exaggerating their own accomplishments. Obviously, grown-ups know the difference, too. But we teach and model how to tell a white lie far too often. And that teaching/modeling lays the groundwork mentally and emotionally for lying. It gradually becomes easier for the child to lie to the parent.
For children who are figuring out how to navigate the uncertainties of living in 2 homes between parents who may dislike, disrespect, and mistrust each other, the child may learn to rely on white lies to cope with the fear of disappointing a parent. Very young children are fearful of hurting a parent so they will tell the parent what that parent wants to hear. In other words, the child learns to take care of the parent who is anxious by creating a story that will sooth the parent and help the parent stay emotionally connected to the child. Children learn quickly that they need to reassure the anxious parent how much that parent was missed by the child; how often the child thought about that other parent while they were gone. And it often isn't true.
At Hannah's House, since 1988, we have had a magic door. On one side of the door the child tells a parent "I don't want to go." The Staff say "come on kiddo, it's time to go" and the child goes with the Staff, sometimes appearing reluctant. The door closes. The child glances back, then at the Staff, then begins to relax. Some children begin chatting, smiling, happy and relieved. Many children actually hurry or even race down the hallway to reach the other parent, anticipating the reunion. That freedom from the pressure of the observing parent is inspiring and can be heartbreaking. Our job at Hannah's House is to protect the children from the burden of those adult pressures so they can delight in the joys of having 2 loving parents.
So how do parents of 2-home kids handle this reality? How do we help our child tell the truth? Slow down. Listen and observe your child. It is a basic parenting skill: Listen Actively! Children love their parents - both parents. Children will forgive parents who make mistakes. Give your child permission to love both of you. Make that a consistent message. We both love you and we always will. Say it over and over again. Only a parent can give that child racing up the hallway joyfully but in secret the permission and the freedom to be who they are...a child who craves, needs and deserves the love of both parents.
Don't question your child about the other parent or the other parent's house or the other parent's family or friends or boyfriend or girlfriend! When you child returns to you, greet them with open arms, a big smile, a loving heart, and an immediate immersion back into life with you. Let's go play! Let's go get something to eat! Let's go to the library.
Parents have a responsibility to help children learn to be genuine, to have permission to just be himself or herself. That means allowing the child to love, enjoy, and desire time with your coparent, that person with whom you chose to co-create this amazing child!!
Don't set your child up to lie by making demands or asking questions that are a set up for a lie. "Who gave you that?" "Did your father give you a bath?" "Did your mother remember to send your medicine?" Parents sometimes ask these adult questions of the children rather than talking with their coparent. Don't put your child in that position. If you are the returning parent, proactively offer important coparneting information briefly and directly either verbally when appropriate or bullet point in a text, email, OFW post, etc.
Children sometimes say surprising things about your coparent when you least expect it. You may have a strong emotional reaction and immediately want to ask questions to learn more. Don't pretend that you don't really care about the answer to a question to your child when you are really desperate to know the answer. You are being disingenuous so the child thinks they can be, too. If the child can tell you are really upset and you demand the truth, you have put them in a very scary situation.
Stay calm, and tell them the truth about your own reaction. "Wow! That really surprised me when you said that. Let's talk about it." What matters is the teaching, the values, the lesson, the morals, the quality of the connection between two people.
Dishonest behavior distances us from others. Too much pretending cuts us off from those we love. Help your child stay connected by being genuine yourself, exploring that urge to hide the truth, to be insincere and to be dishonest in our closest relationships. Slow down and talk about it. Try to understand. And do that together.
Pay attention today to your own truth telling, your own genuineness. Alan Watts translated a Chinese idiom as follows: "We discover who we are by acting naturally." Challenge yourself to find ways to manage your child's transitions back to you and away from you without putting your own needs and expectations on them. Allow them to act naturally. Allow them to have the joy of anticipating something fun and good and exciting.
Work on yourself and your own feelings about your coparent and your own insecurities about your attachment to your children! We are never to old to learn how to be more genuine, to discover more about who we are.