There are so many important lessons we parents are responsible for teaching our children. How to share. How to take turns. How to partake of a meal in a way that won’t get you thrown out of a restaurant or never invited back to a friend’s house. How to put things away when you’re done with them so that Mama doesn’t step on them in the dark and hop around cursing while holding her injured foot.
I struggle every day, hoping that I am helping my children become people whom I will be proud to know. Especially because I believe example is the best teacher, and sometimes my example isn’t all that I wish it was. Other times, I am at a loss to explain why things have happened as they have; either because I simply don’t know or because the full scope of the situation is beyond what they can understand.
Our latest discussions center around two of my pet issues: Honesty and empathy. My children–my daughter, in particular–are pathological liars. It is a small comfort to me to know that this propensity for fabrication is age-appropriate and should come to an end sometime soon. But I confess that part of me is terrified that they’re just, you know, sociopaths. Check back in a couple of years.
Regardless, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of honesty. I have told the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf over and over again. So far, no dice. These children will clobber each other right in front of me and then look me in the eye and insist they didn’t do anything. And really, if they’re going to be social deviants, I’m at least hoping they’ll get better at it. I find myself saying things like, “Well if you INSIST on LYING you should at least TRY to come up with something that there’s a POSSIBILITY I’ll believe!” Because that’s helpful.
Likewise, in their world (where saying it makes it so), my kids seem to believe that as long as they are not direct participants in cruelty, it has nothing to do with them. To wit: Chickadee recounted for me a tale of another girl at camp telling some other girl she couldn’t play with them.
“And what did YOU do?” I asked.
“Nothing!” she rushed to assure me. “I didn’t do anything. It was all her.”
“I see,” I said, slowly. “So she told the other girl she couldn’t play, and you didn’t say anything, but then you kept playing with the girl who’d just been mean?”
“Well, yeah. But! It’s okay, Mama,” she protested, “Because I wasn’t mean!”
“Chickadee, how do you think that other girl felt?” I asked her.
She looked down at her feet. “Bad,” she admitted.
“Right. Someone was mean to her, she felt bad, and then you went and played with the person who was mean to her. Do you know what that makes you?” She shook her head. “Honey, that makes you PART OF the meanness.”
“But I didn’t DO ANYTHING!” she wailed.
“RIGHT. Sometimes, when you don’t DO anything? That’s just as bad as being mean. It IS mean. Because when you don’t stand up to mean, when you KEEP PLAYING with mean, you’re telling people it’s okay with you.”
My daughter fixed me with a “it’s not fair” stare of defiance, but her eyes were full of tears. And so were mine, because it’s not just seven-year-olds who would rather “play with mean” than put themselves on the line to speak up. I pressed doggedly on, with all my standard Good Parenting Approved buzz phrases, such as “we don’t do that in our family.” But there was so much more I wanted her to understand.
How do you teach a child not to lie, when most adults habitually lie not only to each other, but to themselves?
How do you teach a child empathy, in a world where being kind is often penalized?
How do you explain the balance between giving of oneself to another, while still protecting yourself against hurt?
I am trying to teach my kids how to be honest people, and good people. To speak up for what they want and need in healthy ways. To refuse to be a part of bullying, or exclusion. To be kind to one another.
In the meantime, I battle my own demons. I love people who don’t know how to love back. I write off people who come through for me in the most unexpected ways. I am accused–either tacitly or outright–of impropriety, myself, in ways that leave me feeling misunderstood, at best, and abandoned, at worst. I am attacked when I least expect it, while people I’d admired for their forthrightness sit by mute as spectators.
If I could shield my children from these sorts of things, I would. I have no idea how to do that. I still believe in honesty and kindness. But part of me thinks I am teaching all the wrong things.
At least if they turn out to be sociopaths, they probably won’t care too much. Maybe I should work more on that… the not caring so much. Then the “it wasn’t me!”s that surround me might not bother me, either.