OH, CAROLYN: I’m having some food issues with my son.
While I was nursing the baby, I could hear the other kids running around. It turns out they found the Easter candy I had bought for them and were eating it all!
Then, this weekend, I noticed my 7-year-old son’s tongue was bright pink. I asked him what he had been eating. He told me it was the pink chewable tablet from the dentist. Carolyn, we went to the dentist over a month ago!
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I told him I knew he wasn’t telling me the truth and it made me sad. I didn’t yell, but inside I’m panicking.
Then while cleaning up today, I found about 20 candy wrappers under his bed. Every night, even if the kids don’t eat any dinner, they get one small dark-chocolate square to signal that the meal is over and so we don’t reward or punish eating certain foods over others. I really am working to build healthy food perspectives in this family. All the candy that I have stored was eaten under his bed.
I’m panicking because he is old enough to know he is doing something wrong, and he is lying about it to my face.
I don’t want to home-school him, but he has to be learning this kind of behavior somewhere. What happened to my positive influence?
— Worried Mom
DEAR WORRIED MOM:
Kids lie, you lie, I lie, everybody lies, or just about. Why? Sometimes it’s selfish, and sometimes it’s because all but the youngest humans understand that “I gagged a bit and discreetly spit it into my napkin” is not a nice way to answer the question, “How do you like my quiche?”
Plus, kids like candy, duh, and they especially like commando raids on hidden holiday loot.
Combine the two and, yes, you’re having “some food issues” — the quantity is a flag — but they sound more like standard kid issues. What you describe hits the (pardon me) sweet spot, in that it’s an intersection of such major growing-up themes as limit-testing, parent-pleasing, pleasure-seeking and, the force that binds us all together, chocolate.
Your son is trying forbidden things not because he’s a bad kid or because you won’t home-school, but because he’s a kid, period. He wants to see what it’s like to make his own rules instead of deferring always to yours.
Yet for all his commando-raiding ways, he still wants to feel the light of your love on his face — so when he gets caught breaking your rules, he lies to cover his crimes, to pre-empt your displeasure and to keep your delight in him intact.
Your hard work to mark a “right” path for him unwittingly hands him a map for whatever rebellion he wants to take on.
In one column, I can only advise you toward a pragmatic start: Don’t fall into the good kids/bad kids (and mine of course are special!) trap, and understand that to stray is human. Preach and practice the virtues of truth, meaning no “Say I’m not home” when annoying Auntie calls. Keep expressing sadness when he lies and praise truth-telling generously, even when the truth is an ugly one.
And, loosen up on the chocolate — practically and metaphorically. Decide which freedoms you’re willing to grant your kids, including when and to what degree, then cut your kids loose within those boundaries.
Some of those aforementioned volumes for you to consult: “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman has an eye-opening chapter on lying; “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and “Parenting with Love & Logic,” by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, are both solid on granting kids age-appropriate freedom as a pathway to self-control.