Is Honesty with Children always the Best Policy?

Is Honesty with Children always the Best Policy?

Many parents believe that honesty is the best policy when it comes to communicating with their children. But can honesty be detrimental to children?

Consider these situations:

  • After a separation or divorce, your child asks why you and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. Are you supposed to give all the sordid details of why the breakup occurred? Especially, if, indeed, there are circumstances, such as an affair, which led to the end of the relationship?
  • Your child asks for a new winter jacket, but you say you can’t get one for her. She asks why. Are you supposed to say that you don’t get any child support from your co-parent and you’re struggling financially to provide the bare necessities?
  • Your former spouse has seen your children consistently, but recently because of a criminal offense, they are trying to evade the police as there is a warrant for their arrest. You both agree that if your ex-spouse takes the children there could be a situation where the police stop them and they are arrested and taken away in handcuffs in front of the kids. So, you both agree it is better the other parent not take the children right now to avoid that kind of circumstance. What do you say to the children as to why their other parent isn’t coming to see them anymore?

These three scenarios are rather common, but they present dilemmas for one or both parents in trying to anticipate and answer children’s questions or explain why there may be changes in the family life. Are you supposed to be honest and “tell the truth,” or is it better to withhold information or tell a white lie in order to protect either the children or one (or both) parents?

There are no hard and fast rules about this, but there are factors that must be taken into consideration in order to make decisions as to what you share with your children.

One factor that must be considered is the age of the child. Young children, although this can apply to adolescents as well, just do not have the maturity or the life experiences to adequately understand some matters. For instance, sharing details about an affair, sexual difficulties, or domestic violence may be seen by a child in a black-and-white way without being able to see various aspects of the situation.

Another factor is the closeness that the child enjoys with the parent whom you may disparage with negative information. If the child loves the other parent, enjoys a special bond with that parent, or even idolizes him or her, being told something negative (albeit, true) about that parent may be accepted without question, be denied, or may lead to feeling caught in the middle. Young children generally should have not their idealized image of a parent smashed so early.

A third factor is what giving true — but critical information — about the other parent will do to the child’s relationship with you. Being told something negative about their other parent is likely to place them in the middle of the situation. We typically say that a child is “stuck in the middle.” In more psychological terms, being in the middle and feeling pulled in two different directions creates a loyalty bind for most children.

In a loyalty bind, the child must find a way of trying to reconcile what they feel (love towards the other parent) versus what they’ve been told (negative feedback about that parent). Who are they to believe? Which parent should they be loyal to? What should they say or do with each parent – particularly when they are with each parent?

This is such a difficult situation for most kids, that they often become alienated from one or both parents, lie to maintain a sense of loyalty to each parent, or develop hostile and angry feelings to one or both of their parents. Either way, there is nothing about being told the truth about one of their parents that brings, joy, good feeling, or a more tranquil sense of peace.

When faced with this kind of dilemma, you must carefully weigh these factors before giving too much information or before being absolutely honest.

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Knowing your Child’s Friend’s Parents can Pay Dividends

Knowing your Child’s Friend’s Parents can Pay Dividends

When Marianne’s mother announced at dinner that she was going to the PTA meeting that night, Marianne found a time to talk with her as soon as dinner was over.

“I know you’re going to be talking to Amy’s mother at PTA tonight,” Marianne said, “so I thought I better tell you that me and Amy got in trouble at school today. And we have to serve a detention after school tomorrow.”

“Weren’t you going to tell me about it?” her mother asked.

“Yes, I probably would have sooner or later,” Marianne said. “But when I thought about you talking to Amy’s mom at PTA tonight, I thought I better tell you before she – or someone else – told you.”

Then there was Bobby. Bobby’s parents were very involved in hockey, baseball, and the school orchestra. Bobby was acutely aware that at every game and every orchestra rehearsal his mom and dad socialized with the parents of his friends.

If Bobby failed to tell his parents about a poor grade on a test, a reprimand from a teacher, or a conflict with a coach, they always heard about it from someone else.

“I might as well tell you everything first,” Bobby said to his father one day. “I know you’ll find out everything I did from someone’s mom or dad.”

When you are raising a child, no matter how good your child is or how close the relationship you and your child share, there are likely to be things that you are not told by your child. This will be particularly true when your child is an adolescent.

But that’s normal. Teenagers are breaking away from their parents and becoming more independent. They frequently withhold information or avoid answering your questions. Often, they feel that your questions about their life are meant more as interrogation than as friendly conversation.

It may that your child or teen has little to hide, yet as a parent, you may feel left out. Indeed, there may be essential things you should know that they somehow don’t get around to telling you. Consequently, to play your role as monitor and guidance counselor, you may need more information than what she’s voluntarily sharing with you.

You will increase your chances of getting vital information by maintaining relationships with other parents and even with their teachers. When your child knows you will be talking to other parents, as well as to her teacher or her principal, she may decide to tell you things first. Just like Bobby and Marianne did.

As a parent, it is reassuring to know that you’re going to learn things from someone. By having more information, no matter who that information comes from, you are in a better position to act in your child’s best interest.

It can also be reassuring to know that you can talk to other parents at school events or that you can call your child’s friend’s parents at any time to check things out.

Although your child may never admit it, it has to be reassuring for him to know he cannot get away with very much. It takes pressure off your child when they know they can’t hide their actions while hoping no one tells on them. It has to be comforting as well for a teenager to realize they can rely on you to do your part by acting on information that is readily available to help keep them in line.

When teenagers know you’re going to find out about their behavior, they are less likely to make poor decisions and betray important family values. Furthermore, it takes the guesswork out of situations for them. They don’t have to try to predict whether you’ll learn something disappointing or worrisome. They know you’ll always find out.

Finally, knowing nothing can be hidden means that they can avoid peer pressure by telling others that they can’t do something because their parents will find out. It’s a handy excuse when they want to bow out of questionable behaviors or actions.

My Advice: Don’t Ever Offer Advice to Your Teenager!

My Advice: Don’t Ever Offer Advice to Your Teenager!

If there is a good rule of thumb in parenting teenagers, it is this: Resist giving advice – even if your teen asks for your advice.

If you are the typical parent of an adolescent, I’m sure you have thought more than once about why your son or daughter never listens to you and never seems to want – or use – your great advice and well-considered suggestions.

Also, again if you are a typical parent, you probably have found it difficult on various occasions to stop yourself from giving advice when it seemed to be called for.

For example, Heidi heard her daughter Samantha talking to a friend about posting something negative on Facebook about somebody they both knew. Later, Heidi said to Samantha, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that. You don’t know what could happen as a result of saying something about people on a social media site. It could all go horribly wrong.”

To which Samantha replied:  “Get over it, Mom, it’s just Facebook.”

And when Paul tried to give his son Eric suggestions about his basketball playing, Eric’s responses were nearly always the same: “Whatever.” And Paul never saw any indication that Eric heeded his advice.

But to not give your teen any advice, doesn’t that contradict conventional parenting wisdom? Aren’t good parents supposed to support their adolescents and communicate with them?

Well, yes, that much is true and is certainly well-founded conventional wisdom. But the next question is more important: How often do teenagers want your advice? And, as a follow up question, how often do they actually ask for your advice?

Assuming again that you are that typical parent of a teen, you might not be able to recall very many times your teen actually solicited your advice or suggestions – on any subject.  Instead, your perception is probably just the opposite. That is, while you have lots of good advice that you’re ready and willing to share with your teenager, most of the time she isn’t willing to listen to it.

Of course, there is a developmentally appropriate reason for this. Since they are becoming more independent and autonomous, they would like to feel more grownup. If they asked for your advice or took your opinion into account in making decisions, it might make them feel like a younger child – and not like the adult they aspire to be.

However, I do know that adolescents — on occasion — seek advice from their parents. There are some good reasons for this, too. One reason is that no matter how often they act like they don’t care what you think or how much stored up wisdom you have, the fact is they still do look up to you. But because of them desperately needing to break away from you and be their own person, they can’t really acknowledge this.

On the other hand, there are those times when they have a momentary loss of belief or faith in their own capabilities. They, then, may be looking to borrow your belief in them until they can restore it in themselves. However, the catch-22 here is that they can only regain faith in their own abilities by working out their own problems.

Which often means that while you should probably not waste your time giving unsolicited advice, you should also not take a teen’s request for advice too literally.

I have another rule of thumb that applies to such situations: Don’t ever give advice to your adolescent until the third time they ask for it.

If you start with “What do you think you ought to do?” or “What do you want to do?” and they give adequate responses to these questions, but they still want to know what you would recommend, you can assume they are serious and truly do want to know what you would advise.

If you follow my two rules of thumb you might find out what a parent I know discovered.  After following my rules for dealing with teenager’s requests for advice, she commented: “The less advice I offer, the more my son talks to me.”

Teen Shares Risk-taking Behavior; Now What do you Do?

Teen Shares Risk-taking Behavior; Now What do you Do?

I overheard a mother and her teenage daughter talking to each other recently. Some important issues were being addressed and while both mother and daughter were struggling with these issues, neither seemed to realize exactly what was going on in their discussion – or their relationship.

The surface issues had to do with communication, morality, discipline, and trust. But, the age-old problem of redefining the relationship between parent and adolescent was also lurking underneath their conversation.

In this discussion, 16-year-old Charlotte wanted to be honest with her mother and she said she wanted to let her mother know that sometimes she drank beer with her friends.

“And you expect me to just say, okay and let you do that?” her mother asked.               “What else can you do?” Charlotte responded.

“As a parent,” her mother replied, “I have an obligation to tell you it is wrong. Maybe I should even try to stop you – or forbid you to hang around with your friends.”

“You can’t do that,” Charlotte said. “How would you do that anyway?”

Although there was a defiant edginess in this question by Charlotte, it was actually an excellent question. At the same time, it revealed the conflict that often takes place between parents and adolescents. Parents may realize they may need to continue to set limits, but how exactly do they do that with a girl like Charlotte who drives, spends time with friends, and is away from home a good part of every day?

Although the conversation started out as Charlotte’s attempt to be open with her mother about her behavior, her mother was concerned about Charlotte engaging in a risky behavior – drinking. And her mother wasn’t sure what to do with this knowledge. Should she try to stop her daughter from drinking? If so, how would she do this? Should she repeat again (for maybe the 100th time in Charlotte’s life) that drinking alcohol at her age is illegal and that she — her mother — thought drinking was wrong?

Would anything her mother said or did have any significant effect on Charlotte’s future behavior in regards to drinking alcohol with her friends?

Charlotte and her mother were visiting a classic struggle that countless other parents and teens have faced. The problem seems to be about drinking, but the conflict has much more to do with the relationship between parents and teenagers.

Parents worry that they are losing control and that they have a diminished ability to play a significant role in what their adolescents do. On the other hand, teens may seek out a more equal relationship with their parents and they may want to be able to share things about their life in an open, adult-like manner.

Yet, a parent doesn’t stop being a parent – certainly not with a 16-year-old daughter or son. So even though a child may reveal things that are of concern, how is a mother or father supposed to handle it?

In this conversation, Charlotte’s mother was not ready to say what needed to be said. However, based on my experiences with teens, here’s the way I believe parents need to respond in this kind of situation:

Mother: “I appreciate you being honest and open with me about your drinking. I’d like to believe that we have an honest relationship with each other and I hope that continues.

“However, as you are aware, I can’t offer my support for you doing something that is illegal and maybe even dangerous. But I also have a lot of confidence in your ability to make wise decisions.

“I prefer that you not drink with your friends. You know all the reasons why I’m against teenagers drinking. And you know I love you and worry about your health and safety. However, I also know I can’t stop you from doing things when you are with your friends that are risky.

“But, again, I trust that you will make good decisions that will make me proud of you. I’m willing to discuss your decisions any time you want. And if I can help you make the right decisions, you know I’m always here for you.”