Home Education Magazine
September-October 2004 - Articles and Columns
I Used to Lie to My Children - Scott Brinkley
It occurred to me today that I lie to my children more often than I admit. Don't get me wrong; I don't lie outright. I wouldn't say, for example, "I haven't eaten any cake," when in fact I have. What I am referring to is general accountability. I want my children to be honest with me. I, in fact, demand it. I believe that given the chance, the truth is so much better--and in the long run easier--than the fabrication of a lie. But, as I have discovered to my own chagrin, there is another type of lie. I believe we as human beings understand this type of lie innately, and we know when it is being perpetrated upon us. As children we are confused by its mutual exclusiveness in regards to "the rules," as adults we actively ignore or deny it. What I believe this lie teaches our youth is that the quality of our words is valued much more so than say, our actual actions. I believe this mistake is a detriment to us all.
When I was a young boy, my father was fond of telling me "Because I said so!" This phrase caused me considerable problems. I couldn't understand, for instance, why it was that I could not stay up after 8:00 PM but my parents could. I also was confused by the notion that a light left on in my room was able to somehow cost more than the basement light, which my father never shut off. If we are supposed to cut off the lights when we leave a room, then who exactly is "we"? As far as I could see, "we" referred only to me. After considerable difficulties in which I would eventually be sent to my room or spanked for talking back, (How does one have a conversation if one cannot talk back?) I created in my mind a sort of fantasy world in which adults not only made all the rules, but they could break them at will. It became my chief design in life to graduate into this fairyland of irresponsibility. It wasn't until much later--around 30--that I began to understand the ramifications of this mindset.
Thinking back to these times in my youth, I am amused that my parents found my responses so infuriating. I am amused mainly when I am infuriated by my own children, who are talking back to me in a manner not unlike I did when I was young. What disappoints me, and ultimately infuriates me anew, is that I have been repeating these little inequalities, which in my mind have led to a general undermining of my personal power above and within my family. I might have been a mythos of perfection to my toddlers, but now, as they enter their teens, my careful architecture of reason has become a foundation of illusion.
This little parental disaster began innocently enough. I left home at eighteen with the determination to be independent. I still am not sure what I wanted to be less dependent on: my parents, my siblings, other people or the rules. Needless to say, I went out and promptly got married, had two children in two years and wound up divorced and a single parent to boot. This is not a position I highly recommend to anyone if it can be helped, although in such a pinch you quickly discover just how adaptable you are. I learned about responsibility and how difficult it can be to raise two children alone. But, as is usual, I thought I could handle it, so off I went. The first thing to go was my accountability. I don't remember the exact date, somewhere in my early twenties, when the kids were old enough to begin talking back. As a youth I had sworn that I would never say to my children "Because I said so!" I lasted some four years, which at the time I thought respectable, all things considered. It was then I began to lie to my children. I began to let them know, first innately, and then, as their little brains matured and got more inquisitive, intellectually, that the rules were not exactly the rules, but rather a set of abstractions written in the parental ether that changed according to whom they referenced.
As is the rule, I defended my position quite adamantly. Of course I had a right to eat a second ice cream cone. I was in fact an adult, and hungry (or so I thought). Don't laugh at the handicapped gentlemen kids, when in fact I laughed myself silly watching that hidden camera show with the wheelchair skit last night. I was a wellspring of excuses, each carefully designed to render me free from the terms of the rule, safe in my own adultness. It is a wonder my kids managed to retain any respect for me whatsoever, considering how glaring a fool I had become.
How do I fix the situation? This question haunted me for some weeks after I stumbled across (more likely slammed into) my own unaccountability. My first inclination was, as is often the case, to look for where I went wrong. I felt sure (as so many psychotherapists have been) that if I could locate the moment of error, I could regain the righteous path and save myself from this situation. Lucky for my children and me, I came to my senses and realized the only thing I could do was to become accountable. This, on the face of it, sounded simple. Drawing up the plan is simple. Enacting it, that is another matter.
This is what I did. First, I realized I had to admit I was being untruthful to my children and to me. Second, I needed to set up a concrete system, a set of rules that weren't at all abstract. Admitting the truth took some time. I had been existing in a vacuum: single father of two, living alone, self-employed and a bit of a loner. Luckily I became involved with a wonderful Spanish flower and she abruptly burst my proverbial bubble. While the influx of air was invigorating, I was admittedly a little fearful. I was lucky that I had somehow managed to raise two beautifully adaptable children, and while shattering the image of Hero Dad was difficult and not without a pang of sadness, it was the right thing to do. In the end all I really had to say was "I am not doing a very good job of this," and "I haven't been very responsible." While it might have been tempting to conclude that I had fact been responsible--after all, I had raised two children on my own, making quite a few difficult decisions regarding their upbringing, and if you were to spend time with them it would seem that they are bright and healthy--I had in fact been neglectful regarding my accountability. Now that we had the problem out in the open, the solution, at least on paper, wasn't too far behind.
We decided, and I believe it was important that it was a "we" decision, on a family constitution. We chose this form because it allowed the greatest flexibility for change while at the same time maintaining a concrete set of guidelines. Not only has it introduced the concept of teamwork into our family, it has demonstrated that by working together we become a part of the process, and it is much more difficult to slack off when you are an actual part of the process and understand its implementation. The most-favored concept involved in our constitution was the idea that what we were really designing was a blueprint for rule-making in the household. We set aside time each week to discuss what was happening and to air out any differences. We also developed timeframes for each rule and how often we could modify or cancel them. I believe as we engaged in this type of sharing, we developed relationship skills that will serve us well in the future. I also learned some painful lessons about myself.
What was most interesting to note initially was how much easier this type of relationship is. This accountability, when applied to my life in general, made me a much better person. I now believe that, although at the time I would not have admitted it, I had been somewhat less than authentic.
Authenticity is perhaps the greatest of virtues, and one we do not always notice when we are lacking. We hear it talked about a lot, or referenced with sufficient ambiguity that its definition remains a chimera, but we don't often teach it like we would arithmetic. I believe its ambiguity lies in the fact that authenticity is not something you write about. It is not something that comes in 12 easy steps. It is something you do. If you go out and buy a self-help book on stress relief and you read the book but don't actually do the exercises, you aren't going to see any benefit. The book will be on the shelf in your home and you can reference it at your cocktail parties, but it isn't likely to help you when you are stressed out. I used to think about authenticity in this way.
Now I try to keep it simple. I want my thoughts, my words and my actions to meet. It's an excellent theory, although sometimes I find it difficult to achieve. However, I have found that the alternative, to lie to my children, and in turn myself, has become even more difficult to live with.
© 2004 Scott Brinkley
September-October 2004 - Articles and Columns
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