Just this morning, I had one of those conversations that, you immediately know, are going to help develop the character of your child.
My 4 year old son lied to me. Now, that’s not in any way astounding when you consider his age. 4 year olds “lie”. Sometimes it’s not intentional but from a lack of understanding context, timeframes, or reality.
However, this was different and I recognised it for what it was straight away: an opportunity to connect, and guide his future behaviour.
To give you a bit of context, I need to tell you briefly about my son’s relationship with food. He was put on his first “diet” and had his food intake restricted when he was only 9 weeks old. Now, before anyone gets on their bandwagon, this was done for a number of medical reasons, and under the supervision of neonatal specialists and all the staff taking care of him in the NICU. Even so, hearing your child cry because they want food, and not being able to feed them is one of the cruelest sounds you will hear as a parent.
Due to his G-tube being run constantly at night, not bolus (oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now!) he didn’t really get to learn the sensations of feeling full and other important eating learnings of that age.
Additionally, he has experienced an anaphylactic reaction 9 times in his short life, requiring epinephrine and steroids.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that his relationship with food is not straightforward. To this day, we have issues with:
- him being able to regulate his food intake on his own
- some doctors being concerned about his weight percentile being so much higher than his height percentile, and his growth curve
- fears around eating new foods
- eating for comfort to help ease the symptoms of EoE (eosinophilic esophagitis) and GERD
What this has recently resulted in, is a little boy who has started sneaking pleasure foods like candy/lollies, tiny teddies etc and hiding while eating them.
As you can imagine, I have serious concerns for the future ramifications of this. I am working with a supportive dietitian who advocates Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibilities.
Now, back to this morning. I see him sitting on the couch, surrounded by cushions, looking guilty and chewing.
So I asked him what he was eating and this is how our conversation started:
Me: What are you eating bubba?
Son: Nothing mumma.
M: Darling, I can see that you’re chewing, please tell me what you’re eating.
S: I told you, nothing!
M: It’s ok if you’re eating something. I would just like to know what you’re eating, because remember it’s mumma’s responsibility to decide WHAT you are going to eat.
S: NOTHING! (opening his mouth wide to show me that whatever was in there was now gone)
Now here is the moment that it could have been easy to just think about my frustration with him not telling me the truth. By this stage, he has lied to my face 3 times! But, really what would punishing him teach him? My guess is, to not get caught next time.
So I took a deep breath and thought about what I ultimately wanted: for him to internalise the importance of being truthful and trustworthy. And so, I continued. I reached for his hands and made sure that we had a connection and he was really listening.
M: Well, I don’t think you’re telling the truth and that makes me sad, and makes me think that I can’t trust you.
S: What’s trust mumma? (we’ve already had conversations before about truth and lies)
M: Trust is when people can believe that what you say is true. Trust is when you believe that the other person will take care of your feelings. Trust is really important between people that love each other. Now, just imagine that you asked me what colour the sky was and I told you it was green. Would you believe me?
S: No, silly mumma
M: And if every time you asked me something and I lied to you, would you believe the next thing I told you? Would you trust me?
S: No, mumma.
M: Well, that’s what I’m worried about bubba. You see, when you tell lies to the people you love, or to anyone really, it means that in the future they won’t trust you, and they probably won’t want to spend a lot of time together.
M: I want you to have lots of friends that trust you and know that you tell the truth. I want to be able to trust you too, just like you can trust me. So I’m going to ask you again, what were you eating and give you an opportunity to tell me the truth.
S: A frog lolly mumma (said with a sigh)
M: Ok, well I really appreciate you telling me the truth. If you’re hungry you can come and tell mumma, because remember it’s my responsibility to decide WHAT, WHEN and WHERE we will all eat. And it’s your responsibility to decide HOW MUCH, or even WHETHER you will eat.
S: Uh, I know (another big sigh)
M: And darling, you never have to hide what you are eating from me, or anyone else. It’s ok to have an appetite. It’s important to eat food so we can have lots of energy for playing. I’m so proud of you for telling me the truth!
S: You know who else tells the truth, mumma? Batman! And everyone can trust him!
And there, in the mouth of a babe was a universal truth. (I extrapolated it for him, but you get the idea) Everyday superheroes can definitely be measured by their truthfulness and trustworthiness.
So, what were a few of my key learnings from this very important conversation with my son:
- Challenging behaviours often provide us with excellent opportunities to connect on an emotional level, and then guide future behaviour
- It’s never too young to focus on moral development
- It’s so important to be an everyday superhero to your child: kick that off with being truthful and trustworthy
- Punishment doesn’t always teach what you want it to. Take a moment and step back from the frustration, and really think about what it is you want your child to learn and internalise
I’d love to hear if you have had similar conversations with your children, or times where you have been able to focus on moral development. Please leave a comment below, and I’d be happy to connect.