November 21, 2013

Lies Parents Tell and How to Avoid Them

Face it: you don’t always tell your children the truth.

  • You might profess ignorance and puzzlement when a child’s favorite toy  – the one that makes grinding, beeping sounds that are eating into your brain – mysteriously disappears and is nowhere to be found.

  • You might suggest that what your child is doing right now will incur the wrath of a) her dentist; b) Santa Claus; or c) the police, resulting in a “logical consequence”  you are powerless to stop but which will cause her immense physical or psychological pain.

  • You might spin a cover-up, along the lines of the cat going to live on a farm, Grandma going on a long trip, or meatloaf containing no carrots whatsoever, that doesn’t just shade the truth but completely upends it.

  • The question is, “Is this a problem?”

    Well, yes, because truth will out, as the saying goes. Short-term gains in peace of mind and no-questions-asked will eventually be replaced by the realization that you cannot be completely trusted.

    Do not imagine that you can deceive your children forever. They  will put two-and-two together. Their friends will clue them in. They will eavesdrop on your conversations with your friends and family. Long before you expect it, the truth will be exposed and your credibility along with it.

    We parents are tempted to make two sorts of misleading statements: those intended to manipulate a child and those intended to protect him. How we begin to more consistently tell the truth depends on which sort of untruth we’re talking about.

    Lies we tell to manipulate our children – telling them they will go to jail for not using the potty or that their Halloween candy contains bugs – these are completely avoidable. We tell them because we’re out of better ideas for guiding children’s behavior so that scaring our kids or grossing them out seems easy and expedient. 

    Being patient and doing the hard work of toilet-training or being calmly parental in setting limits on candy will be more effective in the long run. Avoiding the truth derails the development of the sort of skills and decision-making ability we’d like our children to have. In addition, your lies will be exposed. So don’t manipulate your kids but tell the truth.

    Sometimes instead we tell lies to protect our children from unpleasant realities.  But if you stop and think about it, you’ll notice that we tell these lies to protect ourselves. We might be uncomfortable with the truth – Grandma has dementia and doesn’t recognize anyone anymore; the cat got eaten by a coyote last night. They are too young for such truths, we say. But, really, we are unwilling to explain things. We are sad and upset by events we ourselves don’t understand. We don’t have all the answers. How can we tell our kids?

    Remember that they will discover the truth on their own. Better by far to be the one they hear it from than to hear it from someone else, after having been told a falsehood by you. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” It’s okay to cry if the truth makes you sad. But telling lies is never a good idea, even with the best of intentions.

    Notice that when you tell your child the truth it doesn’t have to be the whole truth. You don’t need to go into detail. Tell what you know in simple terms suited to the age of the child and then wait for a question to arise. Answer that truthfully. Wait for another question. Some kids want to know everything and will ask questions endlessly as they work things out in their minds. Some kids want less information and will ask next to nothing. Either way is okay.

    One of the tough tasks of parenthood is the gradual revelation to our children of the hard truths of existence. Step up to this duty and fulfill it with grace. Along the way, don’t damage your street cred with falsehoods meant to manipulate and deceive. Honesty is the best policy.

    © 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

    November 13, 2013

    Breaking the Budget for Your Kids: When to Say “No”

    “I’d do anything, for you, dear, anything, 
    for you mean everything to me….”

    This is what Artful Dodger sings to little Nancy in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! It also might be the tune you sing to your own child. We love our kids. Our love has no limit. But our pocketbooks do.

    Even so, many parents go into debt over things their children want that don’t qualify as needs. As we approach the holiday buying season, now is a good time to remind ourselves of the difference and to strengthen our resolve to know when to say “no.”

    Understanding the distinction between wants and needs is not something kids are good at. A two-year-old needs a cookie before dinner. Just ask him! A nine-year-old needs a new package of Pokemon cards. A thirteen year old needs a cell phone with an unlimited data plan. These needs are strongly felt and kids can be very persuasive. Denying our children what they want and what they believe they need just feels wrong. It’s unpleasant. It’s easier and quieter to give in.

    But giving in gives the wrong impression. Even if we can afford everything our children wish for, it’s important to show some restraint. Here are some reasons why:
    1. Children must be able to evaluate their own impulses and develop some self-control. If not at home, with you, where will they learn this? The child who believes that everything has its price and everyone can be bought is not an asset to society.
    2. Making choices about what to buy or what to ask for is more important to a child’s development than being able to buy or receive everything imaginable. Evaluating, planning, and even saving, develop a child’s brain capacity for all sorts of decisions down the road.
    3. Being part of the family “team” is an important part of children’s self-concept, more than being the one the whole family revolves around. It’s a good thing for children to notice that others in the family have needs and wishes too and that sometimes others’ desires will come before their own. Not always, but sometimes.
    4. Giving children something while denying ourselves everything eventually leads to resentment, guilt, and anger. It’s unfair to the child, really, to let her get used to having her own way, only to tell her later that she’s too old for all that. It’s not going to be her fault that she’s spoiled but you might be inclined to blame her nonetheless.
    5. Instead of always supplying your child’s every want, give her an allowance so she can make her own spending and saving decisions. Doing this provides her with an appreciation of the value of things, helps her grow in responsibility and planning, and makes her feel independent and empowered.
    6. If your child wants something you approve that is way beyond his means, insist he contribute some portion of the price, even if it’s just a small amount, or contribute an “in kind” contribution of chores. Having some “skin in the game” helps him be a partner in the investment and feel grown up, instead being and feeling dependent on you.

    This is not to say that we can never indulge our children’s desires or that everything we give our kids has to fulfill a true need. This is not an orphanage, it’s a family. Buying our kids stuff that lights up their eyes is fun and makes us happy too.

    But overdoing the gift-giving and encouraging children to create wish lists that are unreasonable do no one any favors. If you find yourself maxing your credit cards for children’s holidays, there’s something wrong in the equation. But it’s not really about the money. It’s about the values.

    Value your children in incalculable ways.

    © 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. 

    November 05, 2013

    Is It Ever Okay to Bribe Your Kids?

    Like you’ve never done it....
    Like you’ve never said, 
    “If you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert.”

    Like you’ve never said, 
    “Get an A in math this term and I’ll give you five bucks.”

    Like you’ve never said, 
    “Score a run today and you can stay up late tonight.

    There’s no denying it.  When we can’t think of any other way to get our kids to perform, we sweeten the pot. We offer a bribe. And usually our bribes work. Kids rise to the bait and do what we want.

    So what’s so wrong with that? If bribes work, why do they make us feel queasy? Why do experts – yours truly included – warn against relying on bribery to motivate children? Where’s the downside?

    There are a couple problems with making a practice of offering bribes. Bribes stunt a child’s development as a fully-functioning person and, at the same time, bribes undermine your authority as a parent. Not exactly what you expected. Let’s look more deeply.

    When we offer a bribe as a motivator, we change the dynamic of the experience. Now the person who is being bribed is acting, not based on his own values and interests, but based on the values and interests of someone else. He has been transformed into a puppet. He is not a fully-functioning person. This is why offering a bribe and taking a bribe are crimes for adults. 

    For children, who are learning how to make decisions intelligently, being bribed short-circuits this development. It detours the growth of the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain needed for judgment and weighing consequences. The child who does something because she will be rewarded is unable to see past the reward to the true values the rewarded actions support. She is a less-moral person.

    The second problem arises the day she turns the tables on you. Sooner or later your child will say, “Eh. I don’t care about that reward.”  Or, she will start to run the bribe herself. When you ask for something, she will say, “What will you give me if I do?” Now her compliance is the bribe; she will do as you ask only if you agree to pay out. In both these cases, you are put in the position of having to up the ante to get the same results as before. Now it is you who are being manipulated. 

    While rewards work okay once in a while, they do not make a sound long-term strategy. Eventually the reward is no longer enough. Along the way, your child is diverted from growing into someone who can motivate himself.

    If you tend to use bribes, it will take some effort to get out of them. Your child is used to being rewarded and is used to you making all the decisions. You must switch to a system in which your child rewards himself.

    So ask him, “When you finish all your vegetables, how will you reward yourself?” Maybe he’ll say he gets dessert but maybe he’ll say he gets to play on the computer for half an hour. 

    Ask her, “When you work hard and get an A in math next term, how will you celebrate?” Let your child make the plan; if you make it, it is you creating a reward not her taking charge. Keep in mind that getting an A in math may not be entirely within your child’s control. Help her to set contingencies in case she misses her goal.

    And ask your child, “When you score a run today, how would you like to celebrate that?” Maybe your child will say only that he will do a little dance on home plate. Maybe he will plan to high-five everyone on the team. Who knows?

    The point here is that rewards that are important to the person (researchers say “salient”) are more effective than rewards set by someone else. Everyone wants to be her own boss and control her own fate. Children too. And setting goals for oneself and monitoring one’s own progress are key life skills.

    Don’t derail these skills by manipulating bribes. Instead, guide your child in managing himself.

    © 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.