I was email-chatting recently with a couple of Moms of older adopted children about challenging behaviours such as stealing and lying...which I see as being fairly similar behaviours in origin. Though we haven't had issues of stealing in our home, we have certainly dealt with the lying issue, which was a new one for me to deal with when the younger kids joined our family because we've never really had this issue with Matthew.
Just to put this in perspective, just yesterday Matthew broke down in a bucket full of tears over some lie that he remembers telling me four years ago when he was five! He apologized profusely and tearfully and asked me to forgive him. That child has such a sensitive heart and could hardly bear the thought of having lied to me, even that long ago - he told me it was one of two lies he's told me in his life (and the other one we deal with years ago).
So lying was a new kind of parenting thing for me to deal with when Seth and Lizzie came along....cause they lied and lied and lied (Lizzie still does!). Really, it totally made sense from their perspective: These were kids fighting for their lives, having gone through such trauma as they did. Once their language was strong enough, we taught them vocabulary such as "honesty," "telling the truth," "lying," etc etc. It's amazing what is not obvious when you bring home older children with no language! :) To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that Lizzie yet fully understands what these terms mean...she often looks and sounds rather puzzled during conversations on the subject.
Anyway, back to the present...the thought occurred to me after my email exchange with these other moms that maybe I could share a bit of my parenting perspective and learning on issues such as lying because I suspect my outlook on this is a bit different than some other parents' (or maybe I'm just learning what everyone else has thought all along!).
By way of background or context, pretty much all of us parents in this generation (and in the past and upcoming generations) have been raised in a behavioural approach: A child does wrong; we discipline by removing a privilege or issuing some other consequence; and/or we often attempt to motivate a child by offering rewards. The assumption is that children's behaviour will change through our manipulations and that this will assist their maturation processes.
Though I'm far from well versed in this area, I aspire to be different than a behaviouralist. For many years I have felt that there is something 'off' about a behavioural approach to parenting (and relationships in general). I think this is why I was/am so drawn to Gordon Neufeld's work, as he is a developmentalist rather than a behaviouralist. Maturation (and other) processes, from a developmental perspective, is a something that simply happens within a child as their brain matures and is capable of such, provided they are within an environment that enables this kind of natural process. A developmentalist perspective suggests that punishing a child does not teach a child maturation or even lend itself to a child making changes out of anything but fear (of the consequence) - punishment and reward mostly 'aid' in a child's immediate compliance, not in lasting change or maturation.
As a result, we don't do a lot of consequences in our home. In fact, I aspire to even fewer consequences than we already (don't) do but, having been raised in a behaviouralist home and society, I am still unlearning what has been inbred in me. My aspiration is to provide a home (and parenting approach) that provides an environment for my children that is conducive to their brain having as much opportunity to grow/develop and mature as possible, while keeping their hearts soft and adaptable.
I mess this up all the time, but this is my aspiration. This is why the work of Dr. Neufeld so inspires me...the more I learn from his research and compilation of ideas, the more I'm able to take what is buried deep but nonetheless instinctive in me about parenting and apply it to our lives and to my parenting. The more I learn, the more I think about this stuff, the more convinced I am.
So...with that in mind, more about lying...
Some time ago (last fall?), I met with a Gordon Neufeld faculty member/consultant a few times about a number of issues concerning the kids, and one of the issues was Seth's propensity to fabricate things in order to get out of trouble (or even just because). Her comments, in combination with my own thoughts over time, have led me to certain ideas and practices about parenting these tougher issues.
The bottom line, from our consultant's perspective, was that Seth wasn't attached enough yet to want to please us with 'good' behaviour. He hadn't yet reached a depth of attachment where he loved us deeply enough or wanted to reveal his inmost being to us (which is an ultimate truth). This was a factor of both his young age and his past trauma. He therefore had no reason not to lie to us if he got into a predicament; and he wasn't attached enough. This made total sense to me, that it was an attachment and a maturation issue.
In addition, his brain was likely not able yet to experience mixed feelings. Simply put, mixed feelings are when a child (usually between the ages of 6 and 8, or older if the child is highly sensitive or has experienced trauma) is able to hold two thoughts in his/her head simultaneously.
A young child without mixed feelings (like Lizzie) might get herself into a spot of trouble and, when asked about it, lie. When the parent talks to her about the importance of telling the truth, she will nod and affirm vehemently that she will always tell the truth from now on...and she's genuine. Thirty seconds later, when in a bit of trouble again, she'll lie to whatever end she needs to in order to protect whatever it is that needs protecting inside of her. The parent is left wondering what the heck just happened because the child just promised not to lie and then went ahead and lied thirty seconds later. But the child is not doing this vindictively or deliberately; her brain simply is not mature enough yet to be able to think two thoughts simultaneously. Yet our behaviouralistic society generally advocates punishing/disciplining for these kinds of behaviours in our toddlers and other young children who can't yet think two thoughts at one time...all in the interests of 'teaching' them but without recognizing that a developmental maturation process simply hasn't happened yet for that child.
Conversely, when a child is able to think two thoughts simultaneously, the scenario might go a little differently: The child gets into some trouble and, when asked about it, she might think "(thought #1) hmm, I need to lie to get myself out of this situation and I'd like to lie about it...but (thought #2) I also want to tell the truth so that I won't get into trouble about lying and because we value honesty in our family." Lizzie's not able to do this yet, and so I'm not worried about the fact that she lies on an as-needed basis...though it's terribly annoying!
Seth, however, has increasingly been showing signs of developing mixed feelings; at the very least, his two divergent thoughts happen quite closely together in proximity. For example, he is often able to resist physical retaliation against a sibling because, even though he wants to, he simultaneously doesn't want to hurt the other person. He has been showing signs that his brain is maturing.
And yet he lied...whenever he felt like it.
It made complete sense to me that he simply wasn't attached enough yet. It was like the penny dropped on my brain. Click. He didn't love us deeply enough to want to please us; and he wasn't at that deep stage of attachment where he wanted us to know the real him and where he wanted to reveal himself (rather than a fabricated self) to us.
The consultant suggested that because he wasn't ready for truth-telling yet, we should try hard not to put him in a position where he felt it necessary to lie. That was a great starting point for us, and we changed how we handled things. We no longer put him in a position that made him feel that he had to lie to stay out of trouble. Also, because he understood both the vocabulary and the concept by last fall, we also stopped labelling his lies as such because of the horrid connotations attached to that word and because that label might lead him to believe that we, his parents, might think the worst of his intentions rather than the best of them...and who wants their motivations questioned (especially when we mess up??)?
Underlying some of our changes was a growing belief that our kids (all three of them, frankly) really want to be good kids...they just mess up sometimes, just like we all do. We're a fallen, sinful people, and our kids are no exception. But they truly want to do the right thing deep down. So instead of talking about lies, we, very occasionally, talk about the value of honesty and why our kids might value honesty from us as their parents.
Also, and here's the controversial part, I suspect, I don't give consequences for lying anymore...I can't even remember the last time we did this, but it was at least nine or ten months ago. Even then, we didn't give consequences very often for lying, but now we never do. We simply don't want to give our kids the impression that their mistakes will result in our punishing them (which is a behaviouralist perspective anyway).
Simultaneously, we've also (of course) really worked at deepening attachment with Seth. For us, this means as much one-on-one time as possible (which isn't always a lot, but it's absolutely an effort we make regularly and consciously), not giving consequences but rather ensuring that he knows that we still love and need him even when they makes mistakes, being there when he needs us, being the supplier of caregiving and food and all the other basic necessities, and on and on.
As you know from my posts of the past few weeks, we've seen Seth relax big time over the past few months, and his attachment to us has deepened incredibly.
The interesting thing is that the lying has decreased simultaneously to almost nothing at precisely the same time that we've seen his attachment to us deepen. It's exactly like the Neufeld consultant said: The more deeply attached to us he becomes, the more he wants to please us - not out of fear of being rejected if he makes mistakes, but because he loves us. (This principle is true for both bio and adopted children, but more profound and noticeable in children like Seth who have so far to go when learning to attach to his adoptive parents.) Don't you seek to please a person you love and want to be with more than a person you don't feel particularly connected to?
And love us Seth does, I'm overjoyed to say! This is a different child than the child of just a few months ago, in so many respects. And the lying has almost entirely disappeared...and when it did happen again last week, he confessed it to me in tears and as I held him and told him (with no retribution or even a mini lecture worked in) how much I loved him, he said that he was so sorry for having lied. And he said these things not out of fear, but out of regret and appropriate guilt and out of not wanting to disappoint the people he loves so much now. It was beautiful and he is learning to tell the truth because of what's coming from the inside of him, rather than out of enforced compliance to a standard we have established.
I find it very difficult, and correspondingly very easy, to parent like this.
It's easy in the sense that as I begin/continue/try to parent from a developmentalist perspective, I so very often find that this resonates with parenting instincts that I have deep down. I mean, really, doesn't it just make sense that our child (bio or adopted) will want to tell the truth more readily if: a) s/he's deeply attached to us; and b) s/he doesn't have some cloud of anticipated punishment hanging over his/her head??
On the other hand, it's also very difficult to parent this way because of the behaviouralist mentality that I carry with me into every situation. It's deeply engrained in me to assume that if I punish/reward my child for their behaviours, I can shape my child's behaviour and, by underlying assumption, their maturation. It's also difficult because my buttons get pushed and sometimes my pride injured by horrid child behaviours and those buttons make me want to hand out consequences because I get mad and, essentially, want retribution.
But still, it's not the kind of parent I seek to be and I'm slowly but surely headed in this different direction. I still occasionally dole out consequences, always in the heat of some hard moment, and it's only as I come to regret them that I learn better for the next time. I am determined on the consequence thing because I don't see them working; what I see happening as a result of consequences is my child complying with my demand in the moment because I will deliver, or have delivered, a consequence. As a result, they become more careful. But I don't want my child to have to be careful because that comes out of fear of consequences or fear of my anger. I want so much more than that. I want to focus on the relationship I have with my child far more than I want momentary compliance, and I want their natural and spontaneous maturation processes to ultimately result in the behaviours I wish for them. This is a longer term approach, to be sure, but that's what I'm rooting for.
There. That's a bunch. Let the comments fly.
And I still have more to say about this stuff (big surprise).