It is Christmas time again. Santa and the elf is making it’s yearly return. There is magic and excitement in the air. I am all here for this. It is supposed to be magical, the season of joy. Yet some parent as if it is the season of compliance. Good behaviour = gifts/love. Some treat Christmas and gifts as a points reward system, where as long as their children comply to what they want them to do, the kids can earn their gifts from Santa. They use this as a parenting tool and do not realise the long lasting impact this have on children and adults.
Let’s look at it from a different perspective.
As an adult, ask ourselves the following questions:
Why do we always feel overwhelmed when we receive an expensive or very special gift from someone?
When we receive a gift and it is not our birthday or a special occasion, why do we ask the giver “What have I done to deserve this?”
Why do we have such a deep emotional response to the type of gift we receive from others?
When someone gifts you something you do not like, why do we experience it as a statement about our own value and worth?
Why can an abuser smooth over the harm they have done with gifts?
The long and short is, we were raised that gifts is something that is conditional. Gifts cannot just be freely given, it has to be earned. You had to do something right to deserve to receive a gift. The time where that narrative on how life works is written, is during the fragile period of development age 0 to 8/9.
The “magic believing” age is 0 to about 8/9 years of age. The most critical brain developmental age is 0 to age 8/9 years. During this stage, kids learn how the world works. What love is and how to treat others. Yet here we are during this time creating conditions on things that should be unconditional. So by using this strategy, kids are being set up to believe that gifts are solely conditional and that manipulation for compliance can be achieved with the promise of gifts.
Gifts falls within the realm of love languages and should never be used as a means to get compliance from any person. If it is used as a means of getting compliance, it is no longer a gift, but a reward system that can be altered or taken away at any time.
The world we live in, lives by double standards. The standards and expectations of children is much higher than that of adults. This weird world where those with the least mature brain has to behave the most mature and those with the most mature brain does not have to clear the bar at all. Here is a list of 13 things that is expected of children and not of adults
Here is a list of 13 standards enforced on kids, but not on adults:
Going to bed and falling asleep without a struggling to sleep
So often as an adult we also struggle to sleep, even when we are tired. We struggle to switch off our brains and then roll around. We often get up, move around a bit and try a bit later to get rest. Yes sleep is important for everyone, yet we have this immeasurably high standard for kids to meet. They are never allowed to struggle to sleep and get rest. They have to sleep according to our expectations and when they fail to meet that, we get angry, agitated and upset. Yes they need rest, yes they will be grumpy if they do not get enough rest, they know they need the rest as well. The same way we know we need the rest even more so urgently when we struggle to sleep ourselves.
React immediately when they are given instructions
This is the bane of our existence. We want them to be obedient to the degree that we expect of them to react immediately when we request them to do things or go somewhere. Yet when they ask us to do something, we ask them to wait and allow us to finish doing what we are doing. Or we even say no, yet they are not allowed to say no.
Not show their discontent when they feel they have been wronged
I could probably write books and books on this. When a child cries, talks back, argues, says no, rolls their eyes, talks in a snide voice or even screams, they are viewed as naughty. Yet all of these behaviours are a way of expressing negative emotions, disagreement and the way they do it, is due to immature emotional control and also the need to be heard and noticed as a human being.
Do things they do not want to with a joyous attitude and not show discontent
They are not allowed to sigh or show irritation while doing a task or chore. They always have to do it with a smile on their face.
Shop without touching anything
We all shop by touching. We often take things from the shelf to look at and then either buy it or put it back. Kids are often told, you do not shop with your hands while we are holding the shopping in our hands. They are curious, they also want to look and see. Many times kids will show you things, and we assume they want to buy it, just because you are in a shop, when in actual fact they just wanted to show you something they found interesting. When we keep equating showing with having to buy we create our own monster for ourselves, because then they will stop showing interesting things and only show things they want to buy.
Have to hug, kiss or touch people they do not know or do not want to engage with
We as adults do not hug and kiss every person we greet. (now during covid we do not touch anyone) yet for some reason children have little to no choice in how they want to greet people. Do you remember that one sloppy kisser at the family reunion? That person who hugged you that gave you the willies everytime as a child, yet you were forced? Do you hug your boss or colleague or kiss them hello every time you see them? What about the new client who just walked in the door?
Allow other people make use of their favourite possession without complaining
We all have favourite possessions. Possessions that we take care of and will not allow others to use, like our cars, we may allow a select few to make use of it, but man it has to be someone we trust deeply. Yet here we are at playdates and gatherings and force our children to allow other children to play with their favourite toy and if they say no, they are in trouble. Imagine a world where you are forced to share your house with whomever wants to make use of it, or even your car, or anything you own.
Accept physical harm as a means of love (spanking, hitting, smacking)
When an adult gets hit for disobedience from whoever holds the power in the relationship we call it abuse. When a child gets hit by a parent we call it love. The brain of a child interprets the smack from the adult the same way the brain of the adult interprets the smack from another adult. The brain releases the same fear hormones regardless of age, however in a child’s developing brain, it causes more harm than in an adult brain
Eat everything even when they do not like it
As an adult we get to choose to eat what we like and enjoy. Yes sometimes for the sake of our health we eat foods we dislike, yet we have the power to choose which of those we dislike the least and eat that instead of the ones we really really cannot stomach. Yet we strip our kids from that choice
Get up and get over it, especially when thing dramatically change around them
I have often seen and see it now more often than not. We as a society at large is going through a severely dramatic life changing pandemic. Yet we expect our children to be okay and not act out, not regress on certain behaviours, while they are also under immense stress the same way we as adults are. We expect of them to just buck up and carry on and ignore the stress and chaos of the dramatic world events unfolding around them. It impacts them, it impacts them deeply. Any change causes stress and stress hormones, and the smaller a child is, the less life experience they have to deal with it
Always get along with their sibling
I love my siblings. Do i get along with all of them, no i don’t and that is okay. Our kids do not always have to get along with their siblings. The more we try to force it, the more I can guarantee you, that once they are grown up and have a choice of spending time with them, the more they will choose not to spend time with them. Let them build their relationship organically and on their own terms
Never forget anything, instructions or stuff.
We joke that we have “spacial memory loss”. The moment we move to another space we forget what we were going to do there, yet when our kids do that, they are in trouble. We all have lost or forgotten personal belongings because we just forgot it somewhere, yet when a child does that, we immediately brand them as irresponsible, ungrateful and deserving of some sort of consequence over and above the loss they suffered.
Never to get thirsty after bedtime
This one really boggles the mind. This mindset starts from the view that if we withhold fluids from them an hour or so before bed time, they will magically sleep through. And if they wake during the night and want to drink something we view it as wrong and they are not allowed to drink anything, they are just misbehaving and trying to be difficult, they have a sleeping problem… They are thirsty. The same way you have woken up many a night in your life and needed water to drink.
If we have an honest look at this list, it is time that we take a deeper look into what we expect of our children. Start seeing them as whole human beings who, just like us, needs support, understanding and most of all, for US as the Parents to lower the bar we set for them to clear.
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies… There comes an age where our kids start to lie to us. There are many factors that play a role in why kids lie to us and at times all the factors just line up to create a perfect storm of power struggles and misunderstandings. There are developmental reasons for this, but also a societal norm as well as home based reasons our kids start to lie to us or attempt to hide things from us. In this article we will touch on all 3 of those reasonings.
Developmental milestones and lies:
According to Kohlberg and Piaget, moral development happens in different stages and the developmentally appropriate age where kids begin to experiment with lying is in the age range of 5 to 10 years. There are other Early Childhood development Psychologists and researchers that have the view of moral development starting at an earlier age. The age of 3. (If you want to read up on the scholars and research click here for the research article)
For the purposes of this article, we include the age range 3 to 10 years, as that is the current settled science regarding the development of morality.
Piaget identified two different types of morality in his research:
Heteronomous Morality: Which means, morality imposed by authority figures and the outside world, thus morality depends on the consequences and not the intent. Known as Moral realism (5 to 9 years – 3 to 8/9 years according to the latest research)
Autonomous morality: Self-imposed morality, thus the intent outweighs the consequences. Known as Moral relativism. (9 to 10 years – 7/ 8 to 10 years according to the latest research)
According to Grace Point; Early Childhood Moral development article: “Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg built on Piaget’s work to create his theory of the Stages of Moral Understanding. According to Kohlberg, young children at this age base their morality on a punishment and obedience orientation. Much like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that young children behave morally because they fear authority and try to avoid punishment. In other words, little kids follow the rules because they don’t want to get in trouble. It’s too much to expect preschool-aged children to automatically “do the right thing”.Click here for the full article.
Why is this important when we look at lies? Lies are the beginning stages of how children learn to navigate morality. They measure our reactions to their actions and determine what is good or bad and how to survive this life and how to fit in. When a child feels like they will be punished for what is viewed as a morally wrong action, they will try to lie and side step punishment in that way. There is however another factor that needs to be taken into account and that is the developmental space the child is traversing during the 3 to 7 year age group. In this age group they have an extremely active imagination. Their brains are not yet able to distinguish between reality and fiction. For them their imagination is tangible and real. So even if they broke the mug whilst playing, but in their mind the imaginary friend did it in the playing, they will state that it was their friend who did it, because to them their imaginary friend was the guilty party as they cannot distinguish between fiction and reality. So they are not lying and their words are not morally corrupt, they are not aiming at upsetting you or lying to you explicitly, they are telling you their version of the truth.
The lies we tell and how we react to the lies they tell:
We as parents lie to our children, and we do it so often. We read them fiction or they watch television and we tell them stories about Santa and the Easter Bunny. We use white lies when we are stuck in a corner and sometimes we say we will do something and forget to do it, or hope they forget we said that we would do it. It all adds up.
I can already see the eye rolls when I equated reading a story or watching television to your child as a lie. Unless the story is a historical factual book, fiction at its core is lies, it is a flight of imagination. It is acceptable lies because we as adults and even older children can differentiate between reality and fiction. We can differentiate between reality and imagination, and we enjoy these flights of imagination. The process of these flights of imagination is called “suspension of disbelief”. It is called that because we suspend our need for facts and reality, we deep dive into someone else’s imagination and we celebrate it.
There is nothing wrong with the aforementioned practice and we would be remiss to deny the advantages that comes from reading books to our children, however we need to be aware that we as adults embrace a “type” of lying and for a young child that can be confusing as their language development and brain development cannot make that distinction yet. So when we read Peter Pan to them, they become the lost boys or Wendy or even Tinker Bell, Neverland is real to them. So extending grace for their flights of imagination, their lies for protection cannot be overstated.
I mentioned our lies we tell, by not executing what we said we will do, or by telling a white lie to get out of a sticky situation. They pick it up and as their brain matures and they learn to navigate the world, they will make use of those things. Kids see, hear and then mirror everything. Have you ever instructed your child to tell someone you are not there to answer the door or speak on the phone? Or have you ever told someone on the phone that you are already on your way while still getting dressed? They see it and they will use it too, they will use it on you.
Unless we have never told a lie or instructed our kids to lie on our behalf, we are in a sticky situation when it comes to parenting lies.
Then there is how we react. In the way we react to lies or misbehaviour, we create the space for our children to navigate the difference between wrong and right. This age group, especially under the age of 8, views right and wrong as a moral black and white situation. So there is no room to manoeuvre. If you scream and shout over a glass of spilled water and have the same level of reaction to a broken ornament or when they run across the street, they cannot differentiate between the different types of wrongs and which is the lesser of all the evils, so to speak.
If we react poorly in the early days of their experimentation with imagination, accidents and their difficult behaviour, we create in them a fear of how we will react in a particular situation. So we give them a defence pay-out and inadvertently encourage them to lie to us.
Societal and life:
When a child feels uncertain or out of control they will try to lie and control the situation at hand. It hardly ever pans out in a good way. Ironically if you read some of the pre-teen fiction, it is all about a child lying to adults, while trying to figure out life and the situation at hand.
Society seems okay with lies, as long as it does not cause any damage to a person. Hence “white lies” as a label. We encourage flights of imagination by paying for someone else’s lies written in a book. So in the eyes of society, lies are good when you get paid for it, and lies are bad if you use it to hurt someone else or cover yourself. It is okay if you lie to get out of a situation, because being viewed as rude is far worse than telling a lie to protect someone’s feelings. You see how tricky it becomes for our children especially when they are that young. We punish children for lying, but then when they discover Santa is not real, we make up a new “softer” lie to ease the blow.
We need to own this, this is part of life, and we need to own the fact that our children will pick up on lies, try to lie to us with some success. So how do we parent this? How do we handle the lies our kids tell us?
How do we parent lies?
Be a person of your word: When you say you will do something, do it. Even if they forget that you have said you will do it. Don’t give in on boundaries for the sake of the peace and then hope they will forget about it, they will remember and it will have a huge impact on your trustworthiness in their mind. They will start to distrust you, and they may not even be able to pinpoint why, they will just have a gut feeling of mistrust.
Do not ask your kids to lie for you. It may seem small, but really we cannot ask them to behave in a certain way one moment and then another the next moment, just for the sake of our own convenience.
Be honest and upfront, even when it is uncomfortable.
Own your mistakes and do not make excuses for your blunders. You messed up, fix it, no amount of lies will ever fix the mistake.
During the imagination driven age group, allow for lies. When your kid lies here, you can use the words: “you wish ‘xyz’ did not happen.”, “I will appreciate it if you tell me the truth, when you tell me the truth, I’m able to help you. When you hide the truth it makes it difficult to fix the situation.” or “that is an amazing story, I think you need to write it down. You may become an excellent writer one day.” obviously without sarcasm or snark.
Ask what their intent was, no matter the age of the child. Not accusingly, but inquiringly. Asking why as a genuine question, will reveal far more to you than shouting at them.
Read stories and books and join them in their flights of imagination, that way they learn the difference between a straight up lie and suspension of disbelief.
If you do the seasonal character (Santa/Easter bunny) type of things, make a point of telling them it is imagination and it is fun to do so. Under a certain age, they will tell you that they are real even when you tell them they are not. Celebrate it with a “Yes you really want it to be real and I love joining you on these adventures.” That way you are not lying to them, you are suspending disbelief and you are able to keep the “magic of imagination” alive and well. Not doing so, you stand the risk of tainting your relationship with your child into one of second guessing the words that you say, especially about the good stuff in life.
Watch how you react to mishaps, and even blatant disobedience. If our reaction to those kinds of behaviour is scary, fear filled and punitive, they have no reason whatsoever to tell you the truth. Lying then just postpones the blow up indefinitely and as humans we are prone to choose avoiding conflict or delaying conflict if possible. So create an environment where they feel safe to share the truth, no matter what the truth may be.
Ask them what they think needs to happen when they are caught in a lie: This is especially important when they are older. That allows them to really think of the impact their words and lies have on others. The disappointment and hurt lies may cause etc.
Kids will lie, it is part of their development, and it’s how we parent it that will make the difference. We do not want to raise our kids to be liars, but we don’t want to kill their imagination. There is a fine line, but it is possible to traverse that line if we handle it with guidance instead of punishment. When we engage our children in honesty and sincerity that is when they learn the moral value of honesty, kindness and accountability.
Our 4 and 5 year olds are linguistic artists. They reason with the words of an adult and the understanding of a child. They copy and test and try. That said, we need to look at why our kids do things the way that they do. Sometimes it is something as small as a tweak here or there of how we engage with them, and sometimes it will take a bit more patience and understanding of where they are at as children.
Understanding ourselves as parents… We all have triggers, we all have moments where we just don’t know how to remain present. The reason for that is, certain behaviour from our children involuntarily takes us back to when we were that age. However, because we are the parent, we don’t tap into how that little child felt. No, we tap into how the adult in the room behaved and the irritation, anger and even sometimes the specific punishment doled out, comes to mind. Inadvertently we move to a position that seeks control in that particular instance. Our mind flashes back and before we can even register it, the thoughts running through our heads are panic and frustration and then we have only one goal in mind. “I need to get this child to do as I say.” Regardless of what the situation is, we are programmed to want to control kids. We experience it as a clash of wills.
Age 4 to 7 should be the pinnacle of the clash, if you handle this right. If not, the teenage years will be a battlefield where all involved will leave the scene damaged, bruised, battered and some without limbs when the kids finally spread their wings and leave the home. This sounds dramatic, I know. However the reality is, if you as the parent remains of the mind-set that children need to be controlled, especially when they push back, the emotional scars inflicted during the teenage years, will take a lifetime to heal. If they do at all.
When we parent this age group there are some important questions you have to ask yourself as a parent:
What is the end goal? What is it that you want to teach your child within this particular situation?
Am I trying to control the outcome? Do I want my child’s will to bow to mine?
Do I feel like I have lost control over my child? Are you feeling powerless in the situation?
Am I really hearing what my child is saying? Did I listen empathetically to what my child is saying?
What is my intent? Do I really want my child to understand or do I want them to just do what I asked of them?
Have I asked questions to understand better? When the conversation started did I at any time, jump to a conclusion or did I ask open ended questions to gain a better understanding of what they are thinking?
Is it safe? Is what they want to do safe? If not why? How can we find a way to address the safety aspect of the situation, without needing an outright no? Is it possible to give them the opportunity to try without fear of retribution?
Are the choices I have given real choices or just the semblance of choices? Giving a choice that confirms their autonomy is of vital importance. Real choices mean that whatever they choose they will not be overridden. Give them choices in things that matter, not just the clothes they wear. Include them in decisions that have an impact on them. That way you teach them reasoning skills and creative thinking.
Understanding where they are as children? Remember that children are capable of thinking, but they are only 4 or 5 years old. They may have a large vocabulary, but they’re still emotionally underdeveloped and the emotional and impulse control as well as self-regulation only matures at age 25. They are still learning.
During this age period they are at their peak initiative stage, allow them to try and execute plans. Things do not have to be perfect, but they have to try in order to fail and be able to learn from the experience. If we don’t allow them to try, we are hampering their development and actually killing their drive to learn and try new things.
Parenting a three and four year old is pretty intense. They are the concentrated essence of their being, their personality and everything in the world. This age is when they mirror us as parents the most. This is the age where they start whining (which is a good thing) pushing harder on boundaries and become bossy. This is the age where it feels as if you want to give up on parenting all together.
Each age has their moments, however it feels as if these two years are the longest and toughest years a parent will ever have to parent. These years creates in us the everlasting fear of the teenage years. They are not called threenagers for nothing.
At this age your child has basically completed a very big developmental leap. At the age of 18 to 24 months their brain disconnects the idea that, the primary caregiver and they, are one and the same person. The physicality of their being is now two entities. Only at the age of 7 does it dawn on them that they do not share a brain with their primary caregiver or anyone else for that matter. From age 2 years to approximately 2.5 to 3 years, this discovery is what they focus on. So they will start to experiment with independence in play, always using the primary caregiver as a homing beacon.
These skills takes time to develop and practice. They look to their parents for guidance on how this will look and they try to mimic everything we do. Their frustration levels is through the roof. Have you ever looked at something being done, try it yourself and it just did not work out? This is a constant for them. They can see how things are suppose to work, from social interaction to engaging with the material world, but the result is just wrong more often than not.
They get frustrated because we just don’t seem to get what they want and they struggle mid-frustration to use their words, just like us. So they scream and whine and cry. Whining is a sign that they are trying to override their emotions to interact with their rational brain, where they have a better command of words and better control of their body. It takes time, be patient with them and yourself.
So how do we parent through the emotional outbursts and the whining? The feeling of constant push back and willfulness?
6 Tips for parenting 3 and 4 year olds
1. Eye level:
It is so important to remember to go down to your child’s eye level and engage with them there. A towering person, feels threatening and increases the hormonal output of fight or flight. Make the effort to look them in the eyes when talking with them. First it is less scary and secondly it invites them into a conversation, instead of a confrontation.
2. Acknowledge their emotions:
Nothing is more empowering than knowing that your emotions are recognised, respected and valid. Help them through it with support, recognition and being present. Emotions are nothing to be scared of, if you run away from their emotional expressions, you are telling them that their emotions are bad and should be feared. That in itself stunts the developmental process they are engaging with.
3. Lean into the situation:
This is contrary to how most of us were raised. We were raised that negative emotions and expressions in behaviour should ostracize the person expressing them. They should remove themselves until they feel better or can better express themselves. This is not healthy. Yes you can move your child away from a public setting, but only to help them work through what they are experiencing and feeling. Never leave your child alone to work through these big emotions. Try to remain unruffled and matter of fact.
Things you can say:
“I am moving you to a different room, so that you can work through your emotions with me.”
“ I am not scared of how you are feeling, you are safe”
“I am with you”
“I love you”
“This is big emotions. I sense You feel frustrated” – (whatever emotion you can pinpoint at that particular point in time)
4. Don’t step into the power struggle:
Power struggles are only effective if there is two people in the struggle. Your child is trying to determine their own authority and abilities. There is no need, nor will there ever be a need to try and prove who is in control. The moment you as the parent start arguing with your child about who is in control, your child is in control of the situation. If you lean into the emotional expression and just calmly keep your boundary, there will not be a power struggle. The moment you feel like you have something to prove or have something to lose, that is when you stepped into the power struggle. In a power struggle no-one wins. Children find security in the calmness of the parent.
5. Give them real choices:
Children this age wants more autonomy. Giving choices, that are real choices for autonomy, will help navigate this learning curve. Real choices are important. A real choice is where no matter what they choose, their choice cannot and will not be overridden or punished. If the choices you give your child is choices that ends in a situation where you as the parent will have to override the choice or one of the options given is punitive, the choice becomes manipulation instead of empowerment. Ie Real choice: “We are going to a park with thorns. Would you like to put your shoes on now, or when we get there?” Manipulation “Put on your shoes or we don’t go to the park.”
6. Check your own behaviour:
This is the toughest one for parents to embrace. We are our children’s main sphere of information. They look to us for the “how, when, where and why” of behaviour. If your child speaks rudely or bossy to you, chances are that you have been speaking to your child and other that way for a while now. Children in this age group start to experiment with authority. Where do they learn how authority is expressed and engaged with? From you as the parent. So check yourself. Check how you speak to them. How often do you ask them to wait before you engage with them? How do you say no? If your behaviour has been dismissive and abrupt, go apologise to your child and admit it. Tell them you will try to pay attention to how you speak to them. They will internalize that apology and start checking their own way of doing things.
Lastly, give your child space to grow and learn.
Parenting is messy and fun. Enjoy it, learn and grow in it.