One day my grandson, Brad, who is five, came running into the room where his mother was working. With considerable animation in his voice he said, “Megan hit me!” Megan is his three-year-old sister.
From the beginning of time, parents have dreaded these words, because then they have to assume the roles of detectives, judges, policemen, and jailors. Who started it? Why did you hit your brother?
Of course, the answers from the parties involved never coincide, so the wisdom of Solomon is required to sort it all out. Then they ask, futilely, how many times have I told you not to do that? Then the parents have to figure out a plan for preventing this behavior—usually something different, because everything else has already failed.
But this interaction with Brad was different, and it loudly confirmed what I’ve been teaching for many years, that as children we learned to lie only to avoid the withdrawal of the love of our parents and others. If we had felt unconditionally loved as children, there would have been no need to lie. Brad’s mother has done an admirable job of unconditionally loving him from birth. When he makes mistakes, she teaches and guides him, but she doesn’t express disappointment and anger, which have no useful role in teaching and only serve to communicate I don’t love you to a child.
Because Brad hasn’t been punished with disappointment and anger—because he hasn’t experienced the withdrawal of love —when he’s made mistakes, he hasn’t found much use for lying. So when he came to his mother and said, “Megan hit me!” she knew she didn’t need to turn the experience into an interrogation. She simply said, “Oh, really?”
“Yes,” Brad said, “but I hit her first.”
No need for a detective or a judge or a policeman or a jailor. No conflict at all. Rachel, his mother, simply played the role of parent and taught him.
“Do we hit people?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“Because it’s not kind.”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “And when you hit Megan, did that make you feel happy inside?”
“Did it make her happy?”
Brad smiled at that. “No, she didn’t like it. That’s why she hit me back. And she almost hit my eye.”
“So hitting didn’t make anybody happy, did it?”
“That’s why we don’t hit people. It’s not kind, it’s not loving, and nobody is ever happy when we’re hitting. So why did you hit her?”
“She took my book from me.”
“And you didn’t like that.”
“Is there something you could have done other than hit her when she took your book?”
Then Rachel talked with Brad until they came up with some ideas together about what he could have done differently that would have made both him and Megan much happier. It was a delightful teaching experience.
Rachel and Brad had such an obviously good time together as they discussed what had happened, that after a few minutes, Megan came running into the room, shouting, “I was hitting too!” She wanted some of the same positive attention Brad was getting.
Loving and teaching children works far better than being angry at them. Loving works better with adults too, by the way.