Tell them lies, tell them sweet little lies...
After the snow last week, the lane that leads to Dexter’s nursery school turned as slippery as a bobsleigh run – much to his delight and my annoyance – and our morning commute became fraught with icy danger and slipping-over-on-purpose naughtiness. On Wednesday I lost my temper and told Dexter that if he didn’t stop messing around I would not come to pick him up at lunchtime. I also threatened to eat up all the Haribos and give the sledge away to some ‘good children’ if I could find any. That did the trick, but mean-mummy remorse soon kicked in and seconds later I was hugging him, apologising, and promising to be first through the door at home-time, with sweets in my pockets as always.
I’m not proud of this, but according to a new study, I’m not alone either. Results of research carried out in the U.S. and China published this month in The Journal of Psychology, showed that lying as a tactic to influence good behaviour, or "instrumental lying" as they call it, is used by an overwhelming majority of parents. And the number one parental lie? Threatening to leave your child alone in a public place.
I can just about cope with being a bad parent, but knowing that I am bad in exactly the same way as everybody else is galling – I like to think I’m a bit more imaginative and original when it comes to being rubbish, but apparently not. Apparently my lies - which always felt so spontaneous and off-the-cuff to me - are as old as the hills – “What a beautiful drawing of a three-legged horse, Dexter. You are clever!” “Don’t eat too many grapes or you’ll go pop” “If you’re naughty, Father Christmas won’t bring you any presents,” and my most shameful lie to date - “Yes, Great-granny is having a lovely party in heaven with all her friends.”
Sometimes lying is just so much easier than trying to explain the truth, and when it comes to disciplining naughty behaviour, it’s damn effective too. Perhaps because so many of us do it, the media had a field day with the story, setting up debates between rare truth-telling parents and normal people, pitting truth against untruth. The subject flew around the internet, and in and out of the school gates too –when was it acceptable to lie to kids? What constituted a white lie? How could you expect children to tell the truth if adults never did?
However the common consensus seemed to be that the threatening kind of lie was parental dishonesty at its basest – frightening a child with a gruesome fate, abandonment, or a half-understood terror was taking what little they knew of the world and corrupting it into something dark and uncertain. This was seen as almost archaic in its despicability, and taken out of context – by which I mean glossing over both the child’s crime (probably heinous), and the parent’s state of mind at the time of the crime (terrified, knackered, mortified etc.) - it turned any desperate parent who resorted to it, into an ogre.
And yet, something about the survey and the way it was being reported bugged me. Aren’t lies just part of the stories we weave around children every day? We encourage them to play imaginatively with toys and other children, we think their runaway monologues about pirate rescues are adorable, we feign delight in their unskilled and half-hearted attempts to draw, ice biscuits, put their own socks on, and perhaps most perversely of all, every night we send them to sleep by filling their heads with stories of talking dinosaurs, men in the moon, witches and wizards.
Sharing storytime is seen as a precious connection between child and parent, and yet the majority of kids’ books feature the impossible the unbelievable and the very unlikely. Is it any wonder that in moments of stress we call on a menagerie of talking beasts, and supernatural wonders to make our children do what we want? Okay, so the difference between the lies parents tell to enforce good behaviour, and the lies in storybooks is that generally the outcome of the storybook make-believe is a happy-ending, and the parental lie is the exact opposite. So when Daddy reads from the book about the Gruffalo’s child sneaking into the dark snowy woods, the child becomes conditioned to accept jeopardy, because it will be followed by a safe and reassuring ending. But when Mummy tells you that your face will stick if the wind changes, you stop frowning out of fear she might be right.
Anyway, I made a resolution. From now on when Dexter is naughty I won’t just reach for the first lie-threat that easily presents itself, nor will I resort to the whole truth in all its blandness for risk of boring him into ignoring everything I say. Instead I will take a leaf out of Aesop’s book (literally) and use a story to illustrate my point. Today I got my first opportunity to put this into practice. Dexter was in a huff because I’d asked him to tidy up some toy pirates and so he ordered me to throw the pirates away because he didn’t like them anymore. In the past I might have called his bluff and pretended to throw them in the bin thus instigating a huge fit of crying and much backtracking and begging for the return of the pirates. Instead I told him the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, toning down the violence here and there but presenting it as a true story. Dexter listened carefully and the tantrum melted away. I also felt better because telling the story calmed me down too and I felt more in control. It seemed like a real breakthrough for both of us. So it was therefore a bit of a disappointment when after I’d finished the story Dexter told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t believe a word if it because – and he was sorry to have to tell me this – wolves don’t actually exist.