“But it wasn’t me!”

By Mir
August 3, 2005

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.


  1. buffi

    I wish I had some wonderful, sage advice for you. But I am fighting those very battles myself. Same words, same looks. *sigh* This parenting is a tough gig. Let me know if you hear something good. I can use all the help I can get.

  2. justdawn

    Unfortunetly… I am still battling these issues with my oldest son who is 18. I have tried it ALL…
    Some days he is wonderful some days he is not so wonderful….two more kids to go and I still dont have any answers.

  3. Pam

    To help with the honesty part…I started asking my children “Why did you (state what you need to know), instead of asking them “Did you…?” This seemed to help get to the bottom of what you need to know. When I ask the question of “Why” my tone is gentle. Try not to fly off the handle (or it may not work again) I found they were less confrontational, and usually told more then I wanted to know.

  4. danelle

    My daughters (age 23 and 19) have told me that they learned a good bit of empathy from two rules I had while they were growing up. #1 – if there is a new person in your class, you have to ask them to sit with you and your friends at lunch on their first day. There is nothing harder than starting a new school mid-year and the prospect of sitting alone at lunch is terrifying. The empathy they learned to have for the “new kid” wasa present even when they were in high school.

    Secondly, if there is a field trip where a sack lunch is required, I always made my kids make an extra lunch, in case someone forgot theirs..and someone always did. They got an amazing amount of pride from being able to help someone out who was looking at going hungry all day.

    Personally, I think you’re doing a great job as it is…

  5. Bob

    Honesty & empathy are the hard ones. They say honesty is its own reward – because often the only reward you get for being honest is self satisfaction. Empathy requires you to open yourself to others – leaving yourself vunerable. But think about the people you most admire and like to be with, don’t they have these quailities? These qualities in you makes you the special person you are, and draws us to you. In the long run, even though you suffer from people who take advantage of these qualities in you, these are the qualities that will give you the most satisfaction in yourself.

    Teaching abstract concepts like these to your children is especially difficult. But it will make them into the kind of people you can be proud of and that is the best reward you can have.

    Take heart, think of the good things that have happened to you because of these quailities in others and take strength from knowing you are teaching your children to be exceptional people – like yourself.

  6. Sara

    Such huge issues to deal with but SO IMPORTANT! We need to be honest with ourselves that most of us still struggle with it in some form.

    I’m trying to watch Hotel Rwanda and it is so hard. It deals with those very issues. Not at all that your kids are dealing with these issues on this scale, but if we don’t start being honest with ourselves and start really trying to instill these values we will just keep perpetuating these masacres.

    SWC – You need to go to the npr.org website and look for the “this I believe” section. I love these essays and you have some good material to work with here… You’re a great writer. I would love to hear an essay from you on “I believe in honesty and empathy”… And the fact that you believe that its your responsiblity to teach these things.

  7. Amy

    Oh, this really touched a nerve with me, because these are qualities that I feel have kind of hindered me in some ways in my life. They certainly didn’t help me in my professional life, and caused more than one heartache in my life when other people took advantage of it, as people do. And these days, empathy and honesty are not really valued, especially not in the “professional” world. You are supposed to be tough, and a shark and all that.
    So how do you teach your children these things, but also teach them to watch their back, to be wary of everyone else, who may not have the same values?

  8. Jennifer

    How do you teach a child not to lie, when most adults habitually lie not only to each other, but to themselves?

    Ah…one of the great mysteries of life. After 23 years in the child rearing biz, I’m still at a loss. All I can offer is to keep leading by example. Be true to yourself, honest with them, and disciplined when it’s called for. Then, you hope for the best.

    I have a feeling your kids are going to be just fine.

  9. Dawn

    I think the lessons sink in, even though it can be hard to tell at this stage. My kids are 16 and 20 and while they don’t always treat me the way they should, I’ve notice they both treat friends and other adults the way I’ve taught them to behave. And the 20-year old has even started treating me like a human most of the time. Come to think of it, the 16-year old has been quite sensible lately, too. Must be a plot…

    But I digress. Keep teaching them your beliefs. They’ll learn. And if they don’t? Blame it on Dad! Bwa ha ha!

  10. Cindy

    I remember the first lie I ever told. I remember exactly what it was, where I was, every detail. I also remember my mother’s reaction to that lie.

    I was four and fabricated an exciting story when mom picked me up from nursery school and asked how my day was. I was quite proud of the elaborate story I concocted until my mother started crying….no, sobbing with her face in her hands. It was a happy series of events in my story. She could hardly talk to me she was crying so hard. We sat in the car in the parking lot while she sobbed until whe could pull herself together enough to tell me how disappointed she was that I would make up a lie. She explained to me what a lie was and why we shouldn’t do that. She reacted with such a broken heart that at the age of 39 I still remember vividly everything about that moment.

    That day was etched in my memory and growing up, if I’d even entertain the idea of lying, I would immediately flash back to the pain my little lie caused.

    Your post reminded me of that day and how it has stayed with me all these years.

  11. Helene

    This is one of the best posts I read in a long long time. You two nails on head exactly and their both a struggle that many parents wrestle with- including moi :)

  12. 4Sanity

    We are going through the same sorts of thing with my 13 year old niece. She can look you in the eye and lie, and it’s not even just over big things. She’ll take your hairbrush and you’ll see her with it, you’ll ask her where it is and she’ll deny even seeing it let alone having it.
    If you ever find the answers please let me know becuase this is a problem for my niece that i can see is only going to get bigger if we can’t get her to understand that honesty is the best place to be.

  13. Nancy

    I loved this post, and then I went home to find out that my six-year-old had been extraordinarily, shockingly mean to someone I love, and then he flatly denied it. I cried buckets because it really felt like I’ve just failed to teach him *anything* about honesty and empathy. So, yeah, it IS hard, and I thank you for the comfort of knowing that I’m not alone.

  14. Busy Little Bee

    We are starting to enter the lying phase with my 4 year old son. Reading your post really helped. Thank you!

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