After one of my lectures last autumn a parent came up and said that she wanted to ask a question but was a bit embarrassed to ask in front of the whole audience. She told me that she had gone shopping with her eight-year-old son just before Halloween. As usual at such times, almost every aisle had bins of candy. Just in case you missed them, they were all installed near to the cash register. After checking out and putting the groceries in the back of the station wagon, she saw her son take a Milky Way candy bar out of his windbreaker jacket, unwrap it, and happily take a bite. They had not purchased the candy bar and it was one of the kinds of candy in the bin at the check out counter.
She was sure that her son had taken the bar without paying for it and was horrified. She asked him where he had gotten it and he told her that his friend’s mother had given it to him. He was over at his friend John’s house and his mother had bought too much candy and so offered them both a bar. The mother was sure this was a lie and insisted that they go back to the store and pay for the bar, which they did. Her son was humiliated at the scene this created and was sullen and unhappy all the way home and for days afterward. The mother wondered whether she had handled it properly and whether there was a different way to handle such situations.
Her son’s age is important, up until about the age of six, most children do not really understand lying in the adult sense and usually make up stories to avoid punishment, “it happened on an accident” is the usual response to having broken something. But at this stage, the child does not really understand lying as dishonesty. But an eight-year-old does. A more effective strategy than the one the mother used might be to say, “It seems to me you took that candy from the store, but I certainly could be wrong, I have my cell phone so let’s call John’s mother, and if she confirms your story I will apologize. If not, you can go to the store, stand in line, and pay for the candy bar. It will come out of your allowance.”
This approach does not deny the boy’s reality, but does not accept it either; rather it puts it to the test. By leaving the question open and offering to apologize if she is wrong makes kind of an experiment with outcome in doubt. Presented in this way, the young boy is more than likely to own up to what he has done—if indeed the story wasn’t true. But he also learns an important lesson about not jumping to conclusions and giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. In addition, the young man will be less likely to tell stories in the future; if he knows his parents will check them out.
In the end, children are not different from adults. When we challenge someone else’s reality, real or imagined, we tend only to reinforce their commitment to it. If we accept their reality as valid for them, but still an open question for us, we forestall arguments and ill feeling. The other person learns that we are fair but do not immediately accept everything that is told to us. And that is a good lesson for our children to learn about us.
By Professor David Elkind