Our Lying Children
John Breeding, Ph.D.
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Two years ago, I presented a seminar at the annual "radical homeschooling" conference in Dallas on the subject of parenting as emotional healing. This is one of my favorite ideas, and a core of all the parenting work I do and facilitate these days. It's a simple premise, really; that anytime we fall out of our loving and point the finger at our "bad" children, it always says more about us than about our children. I have no doubt that this is true about our need for our children to apologise for their transgressions. I think the subject of lying can be usefully explored this way as well, and, in fact, that is jst what happened at the seminar in Dallas. I discovered once again that day just how big a deal this thing of lying is for parents; it was a good sized group, and there was tremendous energy for working on how and why and what to do about our children's lies. So I want to share a few thoughts I hope you will find useful and stimulating.

My first and foremost assumption, consistent with parenting as emotional healing, is that where we have a hard time as parents is when we get emotionally triggered, which not only interferes with our relatedness to our children, but also causes us to think less well. Something about our child's behavior triggers an unresolved area of emotional distress and we are thrown out of our true loving and intelligent nature. At these times, a feeling of urgency tends to possess us; there is a strong pull to suppress the uncomfortable emotions, usually by suppressing our child or by giving up and avoiding conflict. Often, we feel extremely righteous, a pretty reliable indicator that we are in the throes of a shame attack, from which place blame becomes a thoroughly justified defense.

A Formula For Parenting

When our children lie, this can be a particularly excellent trigger for unresolved feelings of shame. There is a simple formula which is useful as a way to begin workijng with this idea of parenting as emotional healing; K. Lavonne, author of Tomorrow's Children, taught it to me.

Step 1) Recognize that you are out of your loving with your child. This does not mean out of your permissiveness, but that you are emotionally triggered. This usually looks like either an urge to punish or to give up and withdraw. It generally means that you are not able to think well about your child, and have forgotten that they are doing the best they can, and that their "bad" behavior is an effort to get your attention on a place where they have some distress and need your help.

Step 2) Ask yourself, "Who am I in this situation?" This means exploring your internal state when you are triggered. It might be, "I'm an angry woman who wants to throttle my child." Or "I feel like a hopeless, defeated little boy who just wants to curl up and disappear." Or it might be one of those humbling situations where you recognize, with a sinking feeling, that the precise words that just came out of your mouth were those of your own mother's, in just her tone of voice; words you had promised never to use with your child.

Step 3) Ask yourself what behavior or quality in your child are you reacting to. Perhaps you can't stand his whining or her defiance, or lying.

Step 4) Ask yourself how you are in relationship to this quality inside of yourself. This is the inner work of self-discovery and emotional healing. And I can hardly think of a better place to work on this than in the area of lying. The work of personal transformation requires great honesty; my friend, Brad Blanton, has a bestselling book called Radical Honesty: How To Transform Your Life By Telling The Truth. His whole premise is that your personal growth is limited only by your incapacity or unwillingness to be honest. He says that we're all liars, and getting honest is a big work for all of us. The great task of parenting is to do our own work; we can effectively help our children only in areas where we are relatively free of distress. If your child has trouble making friends, and you have a similar pattern, the best way you can help your child is to go make friends for yourself. Similarly, the bottom line with lying is that if it is a problem for your child, the very best way you can help your child is to do the courageous and difficult work of getting honest in your own life. We need to be absolutely honest with our children and especially with ourselves. Blanton talks about three levels of honesty, in ascending order of both subtlety and difficulty: honesty with the outer facts or circumstances, honesty with how you feel about these circumstances, honesty with the deeper conditioning (distress) that lurks behind all this. I would say that a necessary first step is to completely surrender the illusion that there is any justification whatsoever for you to blame, punish, or otherwise be out of your loving with your children; it's all your distress, your responsibility.

Step 5) Do the inner work related to the difficulties you have in the area of distress. This might mean personal counseling, talking with friends, journaling, whatever support helps and is necessary.

Step 6) Thank your child for being your teacher and pointing out to you the place you need to grow. Lying, then, becomes another portal into the fires of personal transformation, and our children are the catalysts who provide both the stimulus to feel the fire, and the motivation to stay with it and endure the ordeal of countless ego deaths. If we are fortunate, these are deaths of those negative meomories, feelings and habits which keep us out of our loving, and awakenings into greater space for acceptance, tolerance, compassion and clear thinking about ourselves and our children. Honesty is an ongoing challenge, and I do have a few more thoughts to share on this phenomenon of lying children.

Connection

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that closeness and affection -- connectedness -- with others, especially parents, is absolutely vital to our children, way more important than efficiency, productivity, or any aspect of how well things go on a practical level. When safety and closeness are at stake, the facts don't count for much. I think inaccuracy, distortion or downright lying about the facts is probably much less significant than the incongruency present when a parent is righteously stuck on details, and not fully aware that he or she is caught in an attittude of shame or blame, insensitive to the feelings and needs of the child at that moment. I know that, from the child's point-of-view, survival itself depends on the continued acceptance and support of their adult caregivers. And my own opinion is that when we adults in authority are acting out of the automaticity and harshness of our distress, rather than the caring flexible intelligence of our inherent nature, that it makes very good sense for a child to lie. There is no need to push. When there is safety, acceptance, warmth and affection, the natural trajectory of the child is toward complete honesty in sharing with loved ones. Why wouldn't it be?

Imagination

To a child, imagination is everything. The definitions of consensus reality, including both the "facts" and the rules about acceptable behavior, are won over a long time at a high price; and they are ever-evolving and changing. It is arrogant and presumptuous to assume a child's reality is like our own, and to impose ours on them in any kind of harsh or punishing way. I vote for a lightening up, and a greater investment in trust and confidence in the natural integrity of the developing child. Often what appears a lie when weighed against the outer facts, is an absolutely true expression of a child's inner world. I want to share with you the following "necessary nutrient" for evoking imagination recommended by psychologist and author, James Hillman, in his book, The Soul's Code: "Among the many prerequisites for furthering imagination, I would single out at least these three: first, that the parents or intimate caretakers of a child have a fantasy about the child; second, that there be odd fellows and peculiar ladies within the child's perimeter; and third, that obsessions be given courtesy." Hillman's teaching is that these so-called obsessions are often windows to the soul, early expressions of the uniqueness of a child's gifts and purpose in life. That we can only really know any connection between these early idiosyncracies and the journey of the soul in retrospect or hindsight is another good reason to go easy on our judgments and pathologizing of our children's behavior. Certainly, we should avoid putting our children into situations where they feel like they have to lie in order to protect the gold of their soul's life purpose.

Control

Parent educator Tammy Cox clearly stated for me the truth that, for children, it is more important to resist control than to have things go well in their life. I have seen the accuracy of this truth again and again. So another place to check when lying is an issue, is at our need and tendency to control our children. Look especially close when there is even the slightest edge of disrespect, what I call adultism, in our communication with a child. This brings me to the last piece I want to share.

Rank

With rank and power comes responsibility. With enormous rank and enormous power, such as we have with our children, comes enormous responsibility. Anyone who has been around children, and who has even the slightest awareness, knows that humans have a built-in expectation of fairness, and a natural tendency toward righteous indignation when things are unfair. It is also apparent that children naturally expect their needs to be met by loving, intelligent adults. In other words, children know we have rank and power, and expect us to use it in their best interests with love and wisdom. Another mentor of mine, Arnold Mindell, taught me the simple axiom that "unfair or unaware use of rank causes revenge." We all know that on any level -- the individual, the family, the community, the nation or the world -- the need for revenge overpowers outer truth almost every time. The best way out that I know is a tolerance which allows for full expression of all grievances, together with relentless desire for and action on behalf of reconciliation. And this is, of course, what we all want in our families. My prayer is that we may all experience even greater awakening, then, to the blessings that already are