My son, perseve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight. Proverbs 3:21
"Wes hit me." My daughter reported this incident about her brother with tears in her eyes.
"Did you hit Jenny?" I asked Wes.
"No, I didn’t," he said, with a look of total innocence in his eyes.
"Then why is she crying?"
"It’s not because I hit her."
Both my seven year old son and four year old daughter were either telling the truth (which couldn’t be happening) or were playing their roles so convincingly that I didn’t know which one to believe. Jenny was in tears so something obviously had happened. She convinced me that Wes had hit her. But Wes spoke with such conviction that he didn’t hit his sister I wanted to believe him, too.
One thing Cheryl and I learned with little kids is that you have to keep asking questions. At a very young age children learn the power of language. They can convince mom and dad they need ice cream and persuade grandma and grandpa they need seconds all with the power of words. Too young they develop techniques of manipulation that wrap us around their little fingers.
One of my two kids was working some of these techniques on me this day. Was it the one crying or the one declaring innocence?
From Cheryl I learned that you have to keep digging. Getting information from children is comparable to searching for gold in the side of a mountain: you have to dig, examine the evidence you unearth, evaluate it, and then dig some more, continuing to repeat the process. Over time, you may find some gold. And truth.
I felt like a prosecutor in the courtroom cross-examining a witness. I had some basic evidence and I had two eye witnesses, though they were giving conflicting testimony. I had to try a different tack.
Wes, why don’t you just show me what happened to your sister. Notice this wasn’t a question, it was an invitation to action. "Show me." Wes opened his hand and swung it through the air. "Is that what you did to Jenny?" I asked.
"That is hitting. Why did you tell me you didn’t hit her if you did?"
"No dad, that isn’t hitting, that is slapping. Hitting is if you make a fist and punch someone. I wouldn’t do that to my sister."
In the next several minutes my four and seven year old received vocabulary and ethics lessons. They were so young to learn the words ‘nuance’ and ‘semantics,’ but if they were old enough to play the game, they were old enough understand the significance of it. The ethics lesson was about truth and honesty, and not misrepresenting either by fancy play with words. This particular lesson was buttressed with some punishment.
This conversation was a great breakthrough for me as a father, because since this incident I’ve observed not only my three, but many other children, control a conversation through semantic play, withholding vital information, and playing ignorant. A parent need not panic if they realize this kind of competitive sparring is going on in conversations with their children. It is normal and natural. It means the kids are thinking through situations, are learning to use the language in creative ways, and are forcing their parents to parent.
You read that last line correctly. When children engage in language manipulation, they force us to parent. For the good of our children, for the integrity of the home, for the continued respect for our authority and role as dad and mom, we must engage the communication process with our kids. For me to have dismissed my two kids that day with, "Oh, just get out of here and stop it" would have left my daughter with a sense of injustice and my son with a sense of victory. Both kids would also have learned that with proper nuancing of terms and manipulative techniques they could by with anything. Respect for their mom and me would have diminished.
I had to enter the verbal contest, search for the nugget of truth, and act on the nugget I discovered. In the process I spent time with my kids and was able to teach them the value of purity of heart and honesty of communication.
When we slow down enough to spend time with our kids in these kinds of conversations, they learn something besides the topic under discussion. They learn that mom and dad will take the time to talk to them and reach the truth. They learn the value of integrity. They learn judgment and discernment. They learn how to behave properly. And they learn that mom and dad love them.
Note: Thanks to Christina for sparking my memory and giving me the idea for this post with her very good article, "Wasn’t My Fault" on her blog, Change of Plans.