Hey friends! I hope you’re doing well. I’m coming off of two really great “mom days.” You know the ones where you feel like you have your shit together, your kids are listening fairly well, there’s more smiles than tears all around, and you just enjoy each other and your time together? Usually I would just be kind of hanging back and watching myself have these days as I wait for the bottom to drop out: anticipating a bedtime meltdown, focusing on hard days ahead, waiting for a fever to pop up, or whatever. But this week I’m trying really hard to push myself to stay present and enjoy it, and it’s working. Of course now I can’t help but wonder if the good days are because of my presence or if I’m able to be more present because they’re going well? But that sounds like content for a future post.
I want to write today about a really simple language shift I’ve made that has had a big impact on my parenting. We’ve all been in situations with our kids or young people where we are very aware that they’ve lied to us or stretched the truth. We want to hold them accountable and teach them the value of honesty, but that is really hard to do without shaming them. We don’t want them to hear “you’re a liar” even if those aren’t the words we use. It’s tricky. Lying can be very developmentally appropriate. It can be completely harmless and playful. Or it can be dangerous. It can lead to a breakdown of relationship and trust. I’ve always felt it was really important to set boundaries and consequences for it from a very early age, but I never thought through how I would do that.
I’ve spoken a little to the fact that my oldest leans anxious. If he is caught doing something “wrong” he panics. He is so worried about getting in trouble. He is brought to tears just thinking he may have upset me. The conversations around lying used to result in me consoling him after meltdowns that drained us both. One day it dawned on me that him being asked the question, “are you lying or are you telling the truth?” felt very confrontational. He didn’t want to lie to me again, but he was also terrified of getting in trouble. It put him in a really hard situation. He knew lying = bad and truth = good. Even though I had never sat down with him and told him specifically that lying is wrong, bad, mean, manipulative, or whatever he was able to pick up on that, fill in the blank, and make assumptions. He made strong enough assumptions that he knew admitting to it made him bad. That is not at all what I wanted. That is deeply rooted in shame. I don’t want him carrying that and I really don’t want to force him into situations where he feels like it is his only choice.
Now, instead of saying, “are you lying or are you telling the truth?” I will say, “are you telling me a story or are you telling me the truth?” I realize it seems like such a tiny switch, maybe even silly. But it has made a world of difference. I’m sure I’m not the one who came up with it but I honestly have no idea if I read it or saw it somewhere or what. Regardless, the language shift has completely altered the way these conversations go.
First of all, it makes the question much more matter-of-fact and less confrontational. He is able to tell me if he made up a story and that allows us to venture into why he may have done that. It creates just enough distance from us, the action, and the consequence to first talk about it more objectively. Since we are focused on the story part it doesn’t immediately activate his emotions which can result in him shutting down. We usually end up pretty emotional, but at least initially we can focus on the facts of what happened which can be so helpful to understand as you then dig into the layers of it all. It also gives me an opportunity to narrate for him my response and my reaction with less pressure. It’s almost like talking about a hypothetical even though we both know it is very real (I’m not really sure how to explain it, but I’m trying). Then we begin drawing the connections and straight lines into the feelings, the actual consequences, the next steps, etc. It allows us to ease into the hardest parts of the conversation without just starting and staying there.
This simple phrase has also helped so much with lifting the shame out of these encounters. I’m not saying he never feels ashamed at all. Sometimes if he made a poor choice the repercussion may be that he feels bad about it. I think that is ok and very human. The difference is that he doesn’t believe he is bad because of the choice he made. When I asked him if he lied to me he heard “are you a liar?” even if I was intentional about never phrasing it that way. We have alleviated that completely by simply asking “are you telling me a story?” It does not deny him ownership. He is still recognizing that he is the storyteller and that he chose not to tell the truth or the whole truth, but it is significantly less pressurized and shame filled.
I recognize this is not fool proof. I know this may not work with every child in every situation. There are so many factors at play on any given day. But it has been hugely helpful for our family. Parenting is hard. It is impossible to not wonder if everything you’re doing is royally screwing them up in some way. So I’m all for sharing concrete things we have tried that have made our life easier and that seem to benefit our kids, especially when all it entails is a small language shift. If you try it let me know how it goes!
Be brave. Be you. Be human.
With so much love and gratitude,
*Originally published June 2022 and republished August 2023