Dear Carolyn: I’m having some food issues with my son.
While I was nursing the baby, I could hear the other kids running around. It turns out they found the Easter candy I had bought for them and were eating it all! That’s silly and understandable, even if frustrating.
Then, this weekend, I noticed my 7-year-old son’s tongue was bright pink. I asked him what he had been eating. He walked away from me. I asked him again. He told me he wasn’t eating anything. I told him I could see his pink tongue and I knew he hadn’t had anything pink for lunch. He told me it was the pink chewable tablet from the dentist. Carolyn, we went to the dentist over a month ago! I told him I knew he wasn’t telling me the truth, and it made me sad. I didn’t yell, but inside I’m panicking.
Then while cleaning up today, I found about 20 candy wrappers under his bed. Every night, even if the kids don’t eat any dinner, they get one small dark chocolate square to signal that the meal is over and so we don’t reward or punish eating certain foods over others. I really am working to build healthy food perspectives in this family. All the candy that I have stored was eaten and under his bed.
I’m panicking because he is old enough to know he is doing something wrong, and he is lying about it to my face.
I don’t want to home-school him, but he has to be learning this kind of behavior somewhere. What happened to my positive influence?
– Worried Mom
A: Ah, yes, those awful nameless Bad Kids at School (and their terrible parents) who turn our conscientiously raised angels into liars and thieves.
Kids lie, you lie, I lie, everybody lies, or just about. Why? Sometimes it’s selfish, and sometimes it’s because all but the youngest humans understand that “I gagged a bit and discreetly spit it into my napkin” is not a nice way to answer the question “How do you like my quiche?”
Plus, kids like candy, duh, and they especially like commando raids on hidden holiday loot.
Combine the two and, yes, you’re having “some food issues” – the quantity is a flag – but they sound more like standard kid issues. What you describe hits the (pardon me) sweet spot, in that it’s an intersection of such major growing-up themes as limit-testing, parent-pleasing, pleasure-seeking and, the force that binds us all together, chocolate.
Your son is trying forbidden things not because he’s a bad kid or because you won’t home-school, but because he’s a kid, period. He wants to see what it’s like to make his own rules instead of deferring always to yours. (And good for him; it’s the ones who don’t who concern me.)
Yet for all his commando-raiding ways, he still wants to feel the light of your love on his face – so when he gets caught breaking your rules, he lies to cover his crimes, to pre-empt your displeasure and to keep your delight in him intact.
You sound quite earnest in your desire to raise him just so, and that desire is admirable, but I swear kids have radar for that. Plus, your hard work to mark a “right” path for him unwittingly hands him a map for whatever rebellion he wants to take on. Want to differentiate from Mom? Hit her stash of the most carefully controlled substance in the house (that he’s aware of).
This answer is going to be long on context and short on advice, in part because the full answer is about child-rearing itself and fills countless volumes. In one column, I can only advise you toward a pragmatic start: Don’t fall into the good kids/bad kids (and mine of course are special!!!) trap, and understand that to stray is human; preach and practice the virtues of truth, meaning no “Say I’m not home” when annoying Auntie calls; keep expressing sadness when he lies and praising truth-telling generously, even when the truth is an ugly one.
And: Loosen up on the chocolate – practically and metaphorically. Decide which freedoms you’re willing to grant your kids, including when and to what degree, then cut your kids loose within those boundaries.