January 29, 2015

Do You Invite Your Kids to Lie?

A parent at the grocery store the other day confronted her child in a very intimidating manner and demanded, “Did you poke a hole in that package?”  The boy – maybe eight years old – seemed to physically shrink. Guilt was written all over his face but he whispered, “No.”

Of course. Who would admit to making a mistake under such circumstances? Clearly his mother was upset with him and clearly he knew that admitting he’d damaged the package would lead to more anger, more yelling, maybe even being shaken, hit, or humiliated in front of all the other shoppers. Answering “no” was the safest option, even though it was a lie.

This is how it goes. We paint our children into a corner, confronting them with their errors in the most threatening way possible, and then we’re surprised when they lie to us about whatever it is we think they did. We make lying the only sensible action. We teach our children to lie.

Is this what you had in mind?

Our need to assign blame is endless. We want everything to be someone’s fault so we can be appropriately angry or disgusted with them. We do this when someone pulls in front of us on the highway, we do this when our spouse forgets to bring home the milk we asked for, we do this when a child brings home a bad report card. Someone is a fault and we want to identify the culprit. And then we want to punish him. Since the adults in our lives are unlikely to accept our controlling, blaming ways, we control and blame our children. Especially our children. Then when they lie to get out from under our anger, we blame and control them some more.

It’s time to stop the madness. Here’s how to teach your children that truth-telling, not lying, is the way to go.
  1. Make the truth unpunishable. If a child tells you the truth, you may not punish her. This is so sensible, we wonder why it’s so rare. Obviously, if you want the truth to be told when you ask for it, you cannot then punish the truth-teller, no matter what it is she’s done.
  2. Focus on solutions not on punishment. Punishment is never the solution, so don’t even go there. If something bad happened, affixing blame won’t make the bad thing go away. Since everyone makes mistakes, children need to know that it’s up to them to fix the mistakes they make. You do this by working together to find a solution to what happened.
  3. If you know the truth, don’t ask a question. If it’s obvious to you that your child poked a hole into a package of $20-a-pound steaks, don’t ask if he did it. Acknowledge the problem and move on to the solution. It’s the question “Did you do that?” that forces a child to lie, so if you know the answer, or have a good guess, then don’t ask. Just say, “Uh-oh! You poked a hole in that. Let’s tell the meat man about that and see what he can do.”
  4. Unsupport tattling. One of the many downsides of blaming people is that others feel encouraged to tattle on them. In an atmosphere of blame, bystanders want to deflect any suspicion from themselves onto the guilty party – or to frame someone else even if that person is not to blame. If you’ve been focused on blame, your other children may have become tattlers. To stop tattling, stop blaming but also stop acting on tattling. Don’t encourage your children to participate in the blame game.
  5. Forget trying to be perfect. Like our tattling children, the reason we blame a wrongdoer and try to force a confession is because we don’t want other people to think we are raising our kids to be hooligans or that we tolerate mistakes. We want to be perfect parents of perfect children who never do anything wrong. This is a fantasy.  A perfect parent (if there is such a thing) wouldn’t make a scene in the grocery store over a damaged package. A perfect parent would model responsibility and truth-telling and engage the child in finding a solution to the problem that just came up.

A package with a hole in it isn’t the end of the world. It’s not worth ruining your day over or ruining your children’s day or making a scene in the market and gathering the stares of all the other shoppers. The parent I saw could have said, “Uh-oh! That package has a hole in it. It looks like it’s really easy to put your finger through that thin plastic.”  I imagine that at this point the child will nod but if he didn’t poke a hole in the package, he might say, “No, it was that way already,” and the parent could believe him.

We can believe our children are telling the truth if we make the truth easier to tell than a lie. You could easily do that. Truly, you could.

© 2015, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Find out more at www.patricianananderson.com

January 15, 2015

Is Your Child Afraid of Failure?

When something doesn’t work on the first try, what does your child do? Does she stop and figure out what might work better? Or does she give up or ask for help?

And what do you do, when your child attempts challenging tasks but then struggles? Are you quick to step in to complete the task for him? Do you even avoid letting your child try tasks that might be difficult, because you want to avoid the frustration?

Here’s the thing: everything we know how to do we learned the hard way, through trying and failing and then trying again. That’s really the definition of learning, to figure out something we didn’t know before we started. So when we only let children do things we know they’ll be successful at or when we step in to do things for them once they encounter a setback, we derail the very thing we’re supposed to be all about. We derail learning.

Carol Dweck, the noted expert on children’s motivation and learning, studied fifth grade children’s reactions to tricky math problems. She found that some children acted helplessly and quickly quit trying but that other children seemed to relish the challenge and enjoyed applying their thinking to working out a solution. The two different approaches to hard tasks didn’t seem to depend on what we might call “intelligence.” Kids in both groups were equally smart.

What seemed to matter was children’s expectations for their own learning. Kids who think things should be easy for them and who are praised for getting the right answer to easy questions balk at even trying to work out answers to hard questions. This makes sense: if your belief in your ability depends on always getting the right answer, even trying to answer a hard question has the potential to reveal you’re not so smart as you thought you were. But if your belief in your ability depends on your resourcefulness and persistence and dogged determination to solve problems, then the harder the problem, the smarter you feel.

The question for us, then, is how do fifth graders get this way? What went wrong in their past experience to convince them that trying is dangerous?  I may not be able to tell you what happened, precisely, but I can tell you when: in their preschool and early elementary school years. Children form their ideas about themselves and their abilities long before we think they do. And we’re the ones who influence those ideas, for good and for bad.

So take a look at the tasks you let your kids take on. Look at their reaction – and your reaction – to struggle and frustration and failure. Make certain you support effort and persistence. Try not to be too quick to step in to help.

At the same time, avoid praising right answers and easy successes. When children think our opinions of them depend on  their always being right, they’ll be less daring in tackling challenging problems. Congratulate your child on a good try. Help him to try again.

Do your children love a challenge? I hope they do.

© 2015, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.