Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Parenting With Objectivist Principles: Honesty

So I've been thinking about how I model the virtue of Honesty for my kids. Honesty, of course, is the refusal to fake reality, the unremitting acknowledgment that A is A.

As I mentioned in my previous Parenting With Objectivist Principles post, children are always working hard (say it with me, "like peopleguys") to grow up into adults. A child's entire will is focused on this goal with an obsession to rival Sauron and The Ring. I think a parent's job (and I'm still trying to define this, so feedback is welcome) is to guide and support the child in a way so that the child reaches adulthood with rationality, self-esteem, and a good sense of life. Oh, and job skills, so they will move out of my house.

Children learn how to be adults firstly by observing and emulating the adults they live with and also other close adults in their lives. If a child constantly wonders if his parents are being honest with him, this important foundation is damaged or even disappears. And of course a trusting parent-child relationship is absolutely necessary for any kind of parental guidance to happen. In being honest with my kids, I'm creating and maintaining a healthy relationship with them as well as modeling the virtue itself, thereby helping them understand reality.

Modeling Honesty happens naturally as children become conceptual. When my kids were first learning to speak, it was natural for me, and I do think for most parents, to help my kids put names to things. They'd point and say "Dat?" and I'd say "teddy bear" or "airplane."

We help them identify more complex concepts, too, such as emotions. Emotions are particularly important, even negative ones. I came from a family where anger was explosive but otherwise unacknowledged. We were not allowed to be sad either and so I grew up with the wrong-headed idea that negative emotions are Bad.

So I'm attempting to do better for my own kids. If they fall down and cry, I can say "You're hurt and sad." If they are having difficulty solving a problem, I say, "You're frustrated." I have a great example of making an unintentional mistake one time when Ryan was about 2. He had fallen and was upset and I said "It's okay" in an attempt to comfort him. He looked at me and screamed "It's NOT okay!" He was right: if a person is "okay" then they're usually not crying and upset. My words of intended comfort looked to him as if I were trying to pretend that the reality of the situation was other than it was. At that moment, I realized how "It's okay" must have sounded to him, so I rephrased. I looked at him and said, "You're right. It's not okay. You're very sad right now. I'll help you feel better." That is what he wanted and needed to hear from me.

Sometimes just acknowledging the reality of their emotions is all they need to hear from me. It's enough to know that Mom understands and that helps clear their heads so that they can get back up on the proverbial rocking horse.

Let's see, what else? The naming of body parts: there are no "hoo-hoos" and "special purposes" around here, as you probably know from reading my blog. (I mean, no parent in their right mind would tell a child that her nose is a whatzit and her elbow is a chair, would they?) I have answered such questions as "Why do women have big lines between their breastses?" and "Where do babies come from?" Incidentally, it's important to keep the child's maturity and level of conceptuality in context when answering questions such as "Where do babies come from?" For the longest time, the explanation of "Mommy has an egg and Daddy has a sperm and they join up together and grow into a baby inside of Mommy" was more than sufficient. Nowadays....well, that's another post!

Context, though. That's important. For instance, we haven't come out and told Ryan that peanuts could actually kill him. We will--we have to--but Brendan and I know our kid and he isn't quite ready just yet. So what he knows is that peanuts, even teeny tiny amounts, will make him very, very sick and he'll have to have a shot and go to the hospital. That is the truth, and it's the truth in a way that he can understand. I am still considering this issue of context though. It's difficult to figure out sometimes.

What about when the child is not being honest? Ryan sometimes deliberately lies or stretches the truth, although not really very often, now that I think about it. Experimenting with telling the truth is a normal phase of child development. What I try to do is make sure that he knows that I know that the facts are different from what he is telling me. "Well, your toothbrush is dry, so I'm pretty sure you have not brushed your teeth yet." That's helping him to know that reality is real and that pretending otherwise doesn't change reality.

Sometimes, though, no amount of my pointing out the truth will make him change his mind or acknowledge the truth. That's okay, because as we all know, Mr. Reality never takes a day off. Sometimes the truth is painful ("I guess I really can't fly.") and my job is simply to comfort. Of course, this is within reason--I wouldn't let him jump off the roof to see if he could fly, but I did let him jump off the ottoman several times until the point sunk in. Actually, I'm not sure it has sunk in just yet.

Another way I model Honesty is when I acknowledge that I've made a mistake and apologize for it (something that did not happen in my own childhood). Brendan and I are honest with each other, too, and would never dream of involving our kids in deception against the other (something that unfortunately happened to Brendan when he was young).

We don't say "because I said so" in answer to questions, preferring give our reasoning for rules. Children are necessarily dependent on the rationality and thinking of the adults in their lives. But I think saying "because I said so" in response to a question like "Why can't I stick a fork in the electrical outlet?" is a missed opportunity to show the kids our thinking processes, to let them see for themselves how we arrived at such a limit or guideline, so that they know our thinking is reality-based. Otherwise, and I speak from my own childhood experience here, it seems to the child as if parents are just arbitrarily pulling these rules out of thin air. My kids don't let me get away with "because I said so" and I'm glad of that. The few times the phrase has come out of my mouth, they look at me like I'm insane and then I provide an explanation. Sure, it gets tedious sometimes, especially in the heat of the moment, but I think it will pay off in the long run.

The trusting relationships I am building with my children now while they are small will (I hope) really help when they are older and their problems become even more complicated. I don't ever want my kids to doubt what I am telling them and even one little white lie can make a person begin to doubt. My own example from childhood is Santa Claus. Looking back on it, I think that finding out that my parents were not being honest with me about Santa was the beginning of my atheism as well as the beginning of my learning not to believe what they told me. It's obviously a little more complicated than that, but that event was truly a "moment" in my life. So hopefully, I'm succeeding in keeping my relationship with my kids trustworthy and doubt-free.

". . . one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner (which is the virtue of Honesty)."
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, page 26


softwareNerd said...

Great post. A couple more examples I could think of:

Modelling honesty is also important when you are interacting with other adults, observed by your kids. Fortunately, this is run-of-the-mill for an honest parent. One of my son's friends sometimes talks about his exploits on the basketball field, that we later find are untrue. Turns out, one of his parents tells tall tales too!

Second, honesty does not mean being "technically honest" alone. It's fine to answer "can we have an ice-cream later" with (say) "if we have the time". However, if a parent is using this to put off the demand until a future, certain rejection, it's dishonest to frame a response that way.

Rational Jenn said...

Softwarenerd, thanks for your great comments!

I especially like what you said about parents making excuses to do something later, when really it's a lie because they never intend to follow through. I think it's best to just say "no" and be done with it. If I do say "maybe later" and then we can't do it for some reason, I always explain why. "I know I said that maybe we'd work on that project this afternoon, but we really can't now because we've got to do XYZ instead. It's disappointing, I know."

I think many parents are afraid? Is that the word? Intimidated, afraid, wimpy--to utter the word "no" and then actually mean it.

Flibbert said...

Great post!

Even though I don't have children yet, you've echoed many of my own thoughts on the matter.

Rational Jenn said...

Flibbert, thank you very much!

Ergo said...

Great post! I like your writings on how your incorporate Objectivist principles in raising your children. I read them with great interest. I have a friend who shares my interest in this as well. I'll direct him over to your blog.

Rational Jenn said...


Thanks for your comments! I'm glad that so many people are responding positively to my posts. I plan to do some more.

Writing these posts has been very good practice for me to think through the parenting issues that I find valuable and to help me apply them more consistently with my kids. Sometimes, especially in the heat of the moment, it's easy to slip back into habits and techniques that my own parents used with me. But many of these sort of ingrained parenting ideas are not consistent with my values, so I'm trying to consciously identify the things I'd like to do. I'm getting better all the time!