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Why You Shouldn’t (White) Lie to Your Kids

Oh no, honey, I’m fine! Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart. The white lies we tell our children seem essential, in some ways, to the critical parental (or important adult, from relative to caretaker) role of protector. But even very young children—like all human beings—have an acute sense for unspoken emotions and moods, particularly in those close to them. In a new take on parenting, goop’s resident shaman points out the damage that emotional dishonesty can cause, despite our best intentions, in a developing child—and it really made us think. While no one should interpret this as a call to burden kids with information they’re much too young to handle, acknowledging one’s actual state of mind and affirming a child’s emotional instincts has serious, lifelong benefits.

Here, spiritual guide, healer, and energy master Shaman Durek, argues that we need to more truthfully share our feelings (negative and positive) with our children, and explains how and why kids are hindered by our dishonesty, and what they gain when we interact with them in a more authentic way.

A Q&A with Shaman Durek

Q

How well can kids read us? At what age do children start sensing their parents’ feelings, and empathizing with them?

A

When we are young, we first experience life from the point of view of our family; we experience their emotions and learn from them. Their fears, their dreams, the things that hurt them—we feel it all. We begin to build patterns of love and acceptance based on the truths that we discover from our guardians, and a lot of our beliefs about the world come from our guardians’ answers (truthful or not) to our questions when we are young.

Children begin to notice parents’ feelings around the age of five, and they typically develop the capacity to empathize right around then, too. This is the same time children develop a heightened awareness of their environment and the functioning aspects of home and school. They become more susceptible to the energy of other people around them; their emotions, their body language, even their breathing and tone of voice all cue children to empathize, and pick up on when something is wrong. Parents encourage healthy empathetic behavior in their kids at this time when they share their own emotions with their children. You can be honest with your kids without placing a burden on them—more on how to navigate this balance below.

Q

Let’s say it’s clear to a child that his/her guardian is having a bad day, but the guardian brushes his/her own feelings off—how does the child process that?

A

Children sense when their parents are having a bad day. When a child asks how Mom or Dad feels, the child is already empathetically feeling their pain. But oftentimes parents say instead that everything is okay—in place of helping the child understand that they’re afraid or upset, explaining that they will get through it, and that they appreciate and love their child for noticing their pain. In that moment, in the absence of honesty, the child builds a disassociation to true emotion.

A pattern begins to develop: The child will continue to watch your behavior, and will see if your answers to their questions match up with the way that they sense you feel. If there is a disconnect, children take that negative energy into their little bodies and try to understand the pain or fear or anger (or any other emotion) that you are experiencing internally.

Children process emotions through a series of impulses generated through their nervous system. A child can pick up on nuances and changes of energy in a room; once these changes in energies are experienced, the body sends impulses to the child’s muscular system, where they feel the degree of pressure or energy that their parent is displaying. It may sound strange, but it is important not to dismiss the idea that your child is reading you when they are in the same room as you; and to be aware of the emotions they may be picking up on and then harboring inside themselves.

Q

How does dishonesty affect a child’s development long-term?

A

It is a parent’s responsibility to nurture his/her child with authenticity, to bring clarity to their environment and the people in it. When you are not honest with children, they lose trust in you, which affects their ability to trust others. If children can’t trust their parents to be honest (even if it’s because you think you are protecting them), they can’t fully trust themselves or anyone else. They will look at the world and wonder why you don’t interact authentically with it. The model of the world your child creates, and the personality they develop to make their way through it, is all shaped by your authenticity—or your lack thereof. Long-term, a child may cope by mirroring a parent’s inauthenticity, or that pattern of fear and dishonesty may manifest in them in other ways—for instance, low self-esteem, anxiety, or stress.

Q

As parents or guardians, how can we balance the desire to protect our children with the importance of telling them the truth? Surely some white lies are necessary and okay?

A

Keep in mind that your fears are personal to you, and ultimately belong to you, not your children. Parents often have a false perception that they need to entirely hide their fears from their kids. But it’s much better to be honest with your children than to be a fear-based protector—again, kids can sense your feelings even when you are not. If you tell white lies about your emotional state, your children will too.

You don’t have to explain every detail of a given situation that is troubling you. Start by telling your child if you feel sad or angry, whatever the case may be. Explain that you are working through your feelings and that you will be okay. Tell them that they don’t have to take on your emotions and that they are safe. Use this moment as an opportunity to remind your child that you are always there for them, too. The idea isn’t to force your problems on your child, but to engage them in an ongoing conversation as they develop their own perspective. The ultimate goal is to model a healthy way of examining personal fears, and to show your child how to be comfortable with difficult feelings, which are inevitable in life.

Q

What are ways that parents can practice being more authentic with their kids, and encourage them to live authentic lives?

A

  • See your child as a wise being who you can learn from, too. Ask them how they see a certain situation or issue. Regularly ask them what is on their minds. Remind them that they are safe to speak openly about everything and anything with you—no matter what.

  • Interact with your child’s world—rather than insisting your child only interact in yours. Discover what their version of the world looks and feels like. Play with them, regardless of what they are into: Interacting with them at their level helps kids to feel grounded in who they are, and more comfortable dealing with uncomfortable situations. They will feel safer, too, sharing their secrets with you, when they feel you can be one of them.

  • Let them know there is no silly question.

  • Help them to understand the why-not explanations of the world; never just say “no” and leave it at that. If you’re mad at them or going to punish them, help them understand what they did and why it was not okay; give them time to reflect on this. Be mindful that everything is a discovery for them—kids see things differently and are constantly learning your world’s rules. (I.e. explain why it’s not okay to color on the walls, but have an alternative art space for them.)

  • Make your home a place to explore and discover. Kids should have a space where they can feel safe to play without worrying that you will get mad if they break something of value, a place without any sort of expectations or potential for judgment. The best play spaces aren’t areas where you store toys, but open spaces where kids can move from activity to activity, exploring art, music, and more—and that can be changed up frequently.

  • If you don’t have an answer to a question, tell them that, and discover the answer together.

  • Teach them to honor themselves by loving what they are doing. Let them see themselves, instead of just telling them how you see them. Be a mirror for your child: Ask them why they play with the toys they do so they can hear their own perspective out loud. Ask them how they think of themselves, which encourages them to find their own voice.

  • Lead by example: Encourage your child to lovingly discover themselves by doing the same for yourself. Remember that life is about discovery; the journey is not linear, it is meandering and often circles back onto itself until you truly grasp a concept.


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