Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My (Parental) Approach to Lying...and Other Things...Moving Towards Developmental Theory

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).


  1. Love the post and love the approach. I'm not comfortable with the punishing approach to mistakes or undesirable behaviours. It wouldn't work on me! You're putting the relationships first and I think that will go far for all of you. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hmmmm- I found this really interesting Ruth. I haven't ever had to deal with lying from my oldest (who I would say is very attached to me and wants to please), but my 4 year old lies regularly with a completely straight face. I don't punish either, or make a big deal out of it, as I believe that lying is a stage of brain development. Your post reminds me of a course I took on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Basically, the premise was that brains with FASD function at about a 5 year old level, and lying (they referred to it as confabulation)is not a deliberate behaviour, but rather based on a desire for what they wish to be true in the moment. When mine lie, I just tell them that it is important to tell the truth even if it is the hard thing to do. More and more lately, Kaitlyn starts to lie, and then changes her mind and I tell how proud I am of her for being so brave.
    Interesting topic. I'm looking forward to seeing what others have to say!

  3. Thanks guys...yes, I'm looking forward to lots of comments on this subject!

    So as I understand it, Kristin, our kids don't attach to us at the deepest levels until between ages 5 & 7...and later (or never) if there are things preventing it or the environment is not conducive.

    Many adults never attached to their childhood primary care giver at the deepest levels; that leads to their being stuck, as an adult, in various aspects of life/relationship.

    Interesting conversation huh?


  4. I too am most familiar with behavioral methods. I'm curious, what do you do when your children are just not obeying? I have read "Hold on to your kids" and am interested in a more developmental approach but am not sure what it looks like for the everyday challenges.

  5. Yes. This. This is what we are striving for in our home. This makes SO much sense to me and I have been reading like crazy. We have not made as much progress as you so I ask this. . . What exactly do you say/do when your child disrespects you, hits a sibling, lies, etc. What is your reaction in the moment?

  6. Well, it's a process! I've taken Neufeld courses off and on for a few years and have listened to a lot of his DVD series (and I highly recommend the courses and the DVDs - they're the best parenting things, bar none, that I've ever taken). It's a whole APPROACH rather than a how-to, and I'm still working through what to always say to the kids. It's not a how-to thing that's easy to explain. But here are a few thoughts...

    One example. Matthew has struggled to adapt to his siblings, big time. His struggle has resulted in difficulty managing his hands at times, and sometimes the words that come out of his mouth, basically because he (like ALL of us) loses his ability to have mixed feelings when under high stress or when angry/hungry/etc. Think about when you are super hungry or super tired - can you manage your mouth as well as when you're rested and fed? No...that's when we say the things we sometimes wish we could take back.

    When Matthew lashes out at his siblings, I tend to take him away from his siblings. I go and get him and take him with me (after making sure Seth and Lizzie are ok). I do not reprimand Matthew when I get him to a private place...ever...even though sometimes I have to bite my lip to keep myself from doing so. In that moment I'm trying to keep his/my relationship intact and not make anything worse by yelling or saying anything harsh...'cause I know in a few minutes he's going to feel badly enough about it as is. So I'll hold him if he'll let me and I'll say things like: "Matthew I know this is so hard...it's so hard when you're being annoyed and it's just so hard for your brain to manage your hands...I know you must be so frustrated..." I talk about it as a brain-managing-hands thing because that's what it is - when he gets older, his brain will be more capable of restraining his hands/words. I don't shame him b/c it's a DEVELOPMENTAL milestone that his brain hasn't achieved yet - it's not something that he can control in the moment of extreme anger or annoyance. So I preserve him/me relationship and he'll usually cry out of regret, or at least experience the sadness of what he's done because as soon as the frustration blows over he knows (without me having said a single word!) that what he did wasn't something that he wanted to do to his siblings.

    (to be continued next comment)

  7. (continued)
    Then, later that day, or the next day (after we've likely had a few such blow-ups), when he and I are cuddled up somewhere and in a good attachment moment, I'll try to draw on his good intentions towards his siblings. "Matthew I know that you want to be loving and gracious and kind to your siblings and I know it's tough sometimes when you get really frustrated. I want you to know that this IS going to happen someday and that some day you're brain is going to be able to manage those hands of yours. But for now I know you're wanting that and you're going to get there some day...maybe even soon." Sometimes he wants to talk about it a lot at that point, sometimes not at all...but his brain can work and develop just based on these processes and not with a single reprimand from me.

    He's GOING to mature...so I just want to keep the relationship between us as strong as possible in the meantime so that he's got a safe place...me.

    There's so much more I'd like to say but it's just too much and none of it is necessarily relevant to anyone else's situation.

    I cannot recommend highly enough taking some Neufeld courses - ideally one led by a facilitator so that you can talk with other people as you work things through...but the DVDs will do in a pinch. This is a huge, huge learning (and un-learning) process - for me it's been a complete shift in my thinking and I'm not nearly where I want to be yet.

    Oh, if a child is not speaking nicely to me, I might ask them nicely to stop, but that usually doesn't work. So often I'll just say "it's so hard to listen right now, isn't it?" or something that's not shaming/judging but also acknowledges.

    The big thing is to keep in mind that when a person doesn't have mixed feelings (because they're too young, because they haven't matured enough yet, or because they're tired/hungry/frustrated), their brain simply cannot manage their actions as well as during other times. Our kids, because they're not mature yet, struggle with this way more than adults.

    OK, enough for now. Keep talking. I have more to say on the subject, too!



  8. One more thing of note: I have found the developmental approach offered by Neufeld to be applicable to bio and adopted children. It's amazing that way. He offers a course on "Transplanted Children", which focused more specifically on parents who adopt and foster. But because his approach in general is developmental, it encompasses both.


  9. I should have said that Neufeld approach is developmental and fundamentally rooted in attachment theory, which is applicable to both bio and adoptive situations.


  10. Thanks so much for all of the info! So. . . if I had to start with an audio download(s) before purchasing DVDs, which would you recommend? I've read his book a few times if that makes a difference to your recommendation... and my kids are ages 10 (adopted from E), 9 (bio), and 8 (adopted from E). We are in southern SK and are too far away from any of the in-person courses. Boo!

  11. Okay, I understand the ideas you are talking about. Deal with the child first and the behavior after. So what do you say to Seth or Lizzie after Matthew has lashed out at them? I guess I wonder about how this works in groups of children or people. When does the maturity kick in? And does the maturity automatically help the child do what is appropriate in general society? I know that we all mature at different rates so I don't expect every 8 year old or every 3 year old to react the same. Are there any expectations for behavior at certain ages?
    Okay okay I'll go Google Neufeld again. :)

  12. The first course/audio we took was called Power to Parent and it was in three, eight-hour parts. It was a very good introduction to the other materials. But if you're parenting a toddler, I've heard there's a great, newish course on preschool children (forget exactly what it's called). I've also taken courses on Making Sense of Discipline, Counterwill, The Importance of Play, etc. etc. I've taken a bunch!

    With Seth and Lizzie, I always ensure that just before I head off to deal with Matthew, I embrace them and look them in the eye and tell them that it must hurt to hear those things and that we often say things that we regret when we are angry. Depending on how severe Matthew's verbal diatribe was, I might also add that it's not ok to say those kinds of things even when we're frustrated, and that sometimes things just come out because our brains just aren't able to manage our hands or our words yet. I also tell them that I'm very sorry that they experienced this. (I don't ask Matthew to apologize to them, though sometimes he does out of his own regrets; but I always apologize on his behalf without naming him...more about that in a day or two). What I find interesting is that both Seth and Lizzie will sometimes say to me in that minute that Matthew's brain is having a hard time managing today and that he's very frustrated. I think mimicking the language is very important over time, so that they understand that this is not about them, or even about 'bad big brother' Matthew, but about an inability to manage oneself well enough when in a hugely frustrating moment.

    Maturity kicks in... I don't know...totally depends on the child. ANd the more sensitive your child is the longer maturity takes, at least if you're talking about behaviour (which is not exactly how I'd define maturity).

    I have observed that both children who are h/schooled and children whose parents attempt to be developmental tend to mature a little later than their like-aged peers. I think it's because under a developmental scenario, children aren't forced into independence nearly as early as most children are. But then what I notice is that at some point around 12-14, there's a switch, where these kids become more mature and are the ones still talking to their parents and able to have a great conversation with an adult and who are more resilient, etc etc etc.

    But there's no magic pill here, sadly, and developmental stuff seems to be the longer course to follow...which makes sense, doesn't it??

    Whew, there are just a zillion things I could say at this point and I'm just a lay person talking, not an expert by ANY stretch of the imagination!

    GREAT discussion.