What if you don’t know what happened and have to ask?
If I did ask a child if they did something because I didn’t know for sure, even if I had a strong belief about the situation, I might seek to make sure of their answer by asking them, “Is that the truth about how it happened? Or the truth the way you wish it was?”
Even young children can understand the difference and will often confess that what they are saying is the truth the way they wish it was. We then move together to talking about what really happened and I encourage them to be honest with me. One thing that helps to encourage this is when I can keep my cool and exercise self control in the face of frustration. Losing my temper over something will teach my children that I’m not really a safe person to be honest with. In those moments I think of Jack Nicholson’s character yelling at Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”, “You can’t handle the truth!” The more my children understand that I can handle the truth—any truth—the safer they feel being honest and the less likely they are to lie to save my feelings or protect me from what really happened.
What about fantasy?
One question that arises is how does fantasy play fit into this—especially related to whether or not it encourages children to lie. I take a unique approach to this because I believe that fantasy play is fun and valuable for children but I also don’t want to ever have my children think that I lied to them about anything—not even Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We treat these fantasy characters the same way we do Buzz and Woody and Nintendo’s Mario who I assure you my young children believe they are real not through anything that I do or say about them.
As my children begin to understand truth and untruth they start to ask questions that show they are wrapping their minds around these ideas. Eventually the question comes, “Is ____ real?” Fill in the blank—it could be Santa, Buzz, or Mario. My answer begins with this very important question, “Do you want the truth? Or the truth the way you wish it was?” My answer honors their parameters.
I will never forget when my oldest asked me about Spiderman. “Spiderman is real, isn’t he, Mom?”
“Do you want the truth, or the truth the way you wish it was?”
“Actually, no. He’s a . . .”
“NOOOOO I want the truth the way I wish it was!”
“Then, yes, sweetie! Spiderman is real and he’s a superhero!”
“I knew it! He’s awesome.” And I got to hear all about how awesome he was.
Navigating those times when you don’t want the truth:
Sometimes it’s not desirable that a child be too honest—at least not out loud.
“That person smells.” “He is old.” “This food is yucky.”
At those moments we may wish that our children would speak the truth the way we wish it was. This can be a confusing stage for children because parents want them to be truthful but these things are truth to them—even if they are arbitrary truth.
The key to handling these situations is to really introduce people’s feelings and the idea of opinions. Your opinion is your truth; my opinion is my truth. What helps me during this stage is that most people understand that little children are observing and learning to understand their world and not always shy about blurting out what they observe. My oldest would sit in restaurants and if someone had a hamburger or steak delivered to their table he would yell out, “That person is eating a dead animal!”
I would immediately shh him and tell him that, “Yes. That is what he is eating. It’s called a hamburger and people don’t usually like to be reminded that they are eating a dead animal when they are eating their food. You can see that he is eating meat but you do not need to tell him or anyone else. If you need to tell me you can get my attention and whisper it in my ear.”
If my children during this stage would say, “Mommy, I want to tell you something!” I would try to remember to ask, “Is it something you can say out loud or should you whisper it in mommy’s ear?” If they weren’t sure we took the safe route and went for the whisper.
There is a reason that fairy tales are so popular. Disney realizes this and has capitalized on it. Fairy tales create a story of fantasy with archetypal characters representing things like good and evil, good character and bad. In the context of these fantasy stories can be introduced lessons about morality, relationship, right and wrong, natural consequences . . . the sky is the limit. To young children these stories are real, not fantasy. As they replay the stories they become the characters. And even outside of these fairy tale stories to watch a young child play is to watch them create a reality for themselves and anyone caught up in it. Some parents don’t allow their children exposure to Disney films; some don’t allow fairy tales; some try to forbid all fantasy play. No matter what you restrict you can’t skip this stage and you can’t require a child not believe their words are magic.
As children move out of the words of magic stage they begin to realize that the power words have is not about creating a fantasy land or making the unreal real, but the magic words really have is to communicate our thoughts to one another, to convey who we are and what we believe to the world, and to motivate change.
It’s so important that the thoughts we convey, growing out of what we believe, and the change we seek to motivate in the world be rooted in truth. Ideally for me it will be rooted in God’s Truth. This is evidence of a godly character growing in my children and I have not been disappointed with any of my children who are out of this words as magic stage.
Because they do not get in trouble there is no reason to fear the truth and because I am working with them to successfully navigate these years and their pitfalls they know I’m on their team and when they aren’t sure of the truth or how to express it they come to me and ask.