Words as Magic

One of the questions I am asked most often about parenting young children is what to do when they lie. I believe this demands some attention and it covers quite a few areas of parenting so let’s tackle it here.

Imagine your 2 year old walks into the room and has evidence of having eaten a cookie all over her face. You ask her if she ate a cookie and she says no. 

Do you really have a huge problem on your hands and are you the parent of a liar?  I do not believe so at all.

So if your 2 year old isn’t lying about the cookie what are they doing?

They are entering the words as magic stage and the more you learn about it the better you will be able to teach and enjoy your child while they are in this stage.

Two year olds are becoming able to do things on their own and they are proud to do them. They are also eager to please their parents and very concerned when they fail to please them. When a toddler perceives that they have displeased you they will seek to make things right and they truly believe that their words have power. Words are magic to them. When they ask for things, they get them. When you tell a story they experience it. And when your 2 year old says they didn’t eat the cookie they believe they have undone the act. With their words they have fixed the problem and Mommy can now be pleased.  And if a child really believes their words are making things so then they are not lying. They aren’t trying to deceive you into thinking they didn’t do something if they really believe that their words made it so it never happened.

If the child is firmly in this stage how can a parent teach honesty?

Thankfully the words as magic stage is ripe with opportunities to teach all sorts of moral and godly character lessons . . . including honesty. I’ve offered a few here and indicated what age example I’m using it with, but they are interchangeable and work for all ages and stages.  They might need some finessing for a particular age or a particular child but that is part of knowing your own child.

Natural Consequences (2 year old example):

If the 2yo who ate the cookie after being told not to was my child I would do a few specific things.

First, I’ve learned not to ask questions of my children when I already know the answer. So instead of asking if he ate the cookie I would say, “You ate the cookie. Mommy said not to eat the cookie and you did anyway.”

If they argued with me or tried to deny it I would state very honestly that I did not ask and I see that they ate the cookie. And I would then focus us on how the child could make amends. Perhaps the cookies were for after dinner and I would tell him that because he ate his cookie now he chose to eat his dessert early. Now there was not a cookie for him after dinner. When he was upset after dinner I would reflect and validate his feelings and without throwing in guilt. I would talk about how next time they could wait and eat the cookie when everyone else was eating theirs. I might talk about how wonderful it is to do things at the proper time or, if my child was really upset, I might stop talking and let the lesson teach itself.

Social Stories (4 year old example):

One of my favorite approaches to character training is to create fairy tales or fantasy stories that contain characters very similar to my own children, who have quite conveniently done something very similar to what they have done. As we develop the story we address the issue and teach the proper response and the dangers of an improper one.

For example, let’s imagine that a 4 year old has gotten frustrated and hit his 2 year old sister.  He denies having done so either because the parent asked if he did or because his sister is obviously hurt and crying and he’s trying to undo it.  Generally I do not specifically address the issue of honesty in the social story, though you could.  I prefer to address what actually happened and give the child real ways to change the situation without trying to rely on words as magic to change things.

 I might take them into the Comfort Corner and sit for a few minutes while reflecting their feelings (most likely the 2yo sister got into the 4yo’s things and possibly messed up the tower they were building with their legos). That is frustrating and that is upsetting and being sad and even angry is a normal feeling under the circumstances. To acknowledge and validate this is not the same as saying the way the child acted in their anger and frustration is acceptable. So once the child is calm I might say I’m going to tell them a story . . .

Once upon a time there was a little boy who was four years old. He was a builder of tall towers and he was very proud of the towers that he would build. He knew that his towers provided homes for little people and sometimes soldiers had to use his towers to fight for the good guys to win. They all appreciated that the little boy took time to build his towers and the world was right and good. One day the little boy had a sister and when his sister was 2 she started being the destroyer of towers. She didn’t realize the destruction she was doing but she loved to see the towers fall over. Every time a tower fell she squealed with delight. But every time a tower fell over some little people lost their home or some soldiers wouldn’t be able to win their fight for good. This really upset the little boy. He had worked so hard to build these towers and when his sister knocked them over he felt very big feelings. He was frustrated, he was angry, he was sad, and he was mad. Sometimes he would try to hold those feelings inside but they were so big that his body couldn’t hold them in. When that happened they would erupt out of him like a big volcano and they would fly all around the room. Usually they would knock over his little sister. Sometimes when that happened the little boy felt bad; sometimes he was glad it happened.

Usually by this point in the story my four year old would be verbalizing his affirmation and telling me what was right or altering the story. For example, he might correct the feelings that the little boy had, or he might insist he always felt bad when the sister was knocked over or that he was always glad. I adjust and alter the story as this information is shared so that the child more firmly relates to the little boy and what has happened. But because I have not identified him as the little boy it’s okay to listen—I sometimes refer to these sorts of teaching moments as going in the side door. And back to our story . . .

When the little boy would knock over his little sister with his big feelings his mommy would get very upset. She understood how hard he worked on his towers and she was sad that they were knocked over, but she wondered why the little boy didn’t use his words. He knew how to say things like, “Sister, stay away from my towers. Find something else to play with.” And he knew how to say, “MOMMY! Sister is getting into my stuff.” Even if he couldn’t think of his other words he knew the very powerful word, “HELP!” And mommy was always ready to help. When he didn’t use his words and his sister got hurt then his mommy would feel frustrated. Sometimes she might say words that she would feel bad about and then she would really understand how her little boy felt. Even big people sometimes don’t respond correctly. But how could this little boy have reacted when his towers were knocked over?

And at that moment I invite the child into the process as we move into problem solving solutions for next time. This serves two purposes. First, it helps me to understand how much they have matured in this process and how good they are getting at finding new solutions and second, it helps me to find out what solutions they already know and where to focus my energies in helping them put into practice what they have already learned. After this part of the story we go on . . .

Now that the little boy knew what to do next time the mommy reminded him of what he needed to do this time. Because he had done something that hurt his sister he needed to make things right with her. It’s not okay to hurt someone and not make amends. So the little boy went to his sister and said, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” And offered a hug to make things right. After they hugged and she forgave him they knew everything would be okay.

Coming back out of the story I would ask my child, “Are you ready to do what you need to do?” And prompt them as necessary to make amends with their sister. Effective discipline has taken place and now the child knows what to do next time. Even though they may forget, and may need more stories, this is the process of discipline. Teaching, teaching, teaching.

This same approach can be used with any situation where a child speaks untruth. The story may be about a little girl who ate a cookie after her mommy told her not to and when the mommy saw her and got upset the little girl felt bad about it and wanted to undo it. She tried to use her words to put the cookie back in the cookie jar. The mommy understood that the little girl felt bad but she also knew that the cookie was still in her daughter’s tummy. The little girl knew too. The story could introduce ways to make amends for not doing what mommy said and a plan could be made for the little girl in the story to be more successful at following rules next time.  And if untruth is a large problem and coming out in all sorts of areas the reliable “Boy Who Cried Wolf” can be used as a teaching moment or adapted into a social story involving a child just like yours.

 ( Social Stories are an invaluable resource for helping autistic children learn how to behave when in new social situations and I have merely adapted them. You can find books containing all sorts of social stories if you are struggling with creating your own.)

Teaching about language (especially between ages 6-8):

It is important when dealing with the issue of honesty to delve into the world of nuances in the use of language that as adults we too often take for granted. There is not just truth and lie. There are jokes, pranks, and tricks; there is sarcasm, irony, and exaggeration. As children mature they will need to learn to navigate all of these subtleties. Truth and untruth is merely the beginning.

Eventually my children start to learn about jokes and we play around at that for awhile. Inevitably this is followed by learning about tricks. I’m very clear with my children that jokes and tricks are only successful if everyone is having fun and laughing. It’s not a joke if it’s at someone else’s expense—that’s just mean. It’s not a trick if someone gets hurt on their body or in their feelings. And we work out the kinks in those areas of language. During this stage they always try out the untruth that, when caught, they assure me was, “Only joking.” Rather than getting angry I teach—and this is where we move into the difference between the truth and a lie! Because they are intentionally telling an untruth and covering up with the excuse of joking it’s time to really make sure they know what a lie is.  A lie is when you tell someone something that isn’t true and you do it to intentionally deceive them and protect yourself. This maturity with language becoming a focus, starting around age 5 or 6, is when I know my child is moving out of the words as magic stage.

With more obvious understanding of language comes greater accountability for how language is used.  It’s important to remember that we’re still learning and approach it as a coach or guide rather than with frustration at a lesson not yet fully learned.  When my child knows what a lie is from being in this stage I will ask them, “Is that a lie? Are you trying to deceive me (or whoever)?” and give them the same chance to own it and make amends they’ve had at every other stage up until now.  It’s important to learn that, even if they do lie, they still can and need to make things right and work things out.  If lying carries extra weight or consequence then they will not be motivated to move fully out of the words as magic stage—they need to understand that they can own their words, even when they make the wrong choices with them. They need to know that taking responsibility is how you fix things—even lies.

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