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“Honesty” Is Not Always The Best Policy

Written by: Dr. Beverly Wertheimer, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


When she told me her childhood nickname was “Smiley,” I was taken aback and hoped my raised eyebrow that asked, “Really?” didn’t give away my bewilderment. My 40- year-old client had such a striking air of melancholy that I couldn’t even imagine her producing half a smile. I soon learned that “Smiley” was one of many sarcastic labels her parents minted because my client was a shy and reserved little girl. Often, after an insult that left her daughter visibly hurt, "Smiley's" mother would dismissively say, "Lighten up! I'm just joking!" But no one was laughing.

When Jokes Are Not Funny

I was just joking may be the most tired and trite excuse for being rude and mean ever produced. The definition of a joke is a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline. Nowhere does this depiction remotely imply that the punchline should be delivered at someone else’s expense. Barbs, criticisms, and insults bring to the recipient not an iota of mirth but leave them with a lasting sting of shame and resentment. As they get older, children whose parents call them a monster, a brat, or a loser will often live up to the painful label they can’t live down. This is partly because even if children don’t say it or show it, their parents are their everything; so, when parents belittle and denigrate them, they often internalize self-hatred. They wonder, if my own parents don’t like me, who will?

Your Child’s Mind as Vegas

One may argue, “My kid whines, yells, and acts like a crybaby, so I need to tell him. It’s for his own good. I’m just being honest.” Calling a child “a crybaby” or any name is not honest, it’s cruel. Too often, cruelty is justified in the poor, exploited name of honesty. But let’s be honest, an opinion is not honesty, it’s just an opinion. It’s for good reason that parenting is often called the hardest job in the world. Even if you have super easy air fern children who require infrequent guidance and redirection, parenting is still an exhausting, 24/7, 18-plus year job. And a vital part of this job is to lead by example, especially when our kids tap on our last nerve.

This is what kids do. Expecting children not to be rude, impulsive, or loud is like expecting an umbrella to hold back a hurricane. We should expect our kids to irritate us and even criticize us. They’re testing the waters, but that doesn’t mean they should be bitten by an angry crocodile. While it’s hard to stay calm when your child is yelling and you’re trying to work, shouting “Stop yelling!” is plain inane. You cannot demand of a child what you cannot yourself execute. Children need their parents to behave like grown-ups. And while your children may not always do as you say, they will often say as you do. Kids notice every word, subtext, and facial expression we make, so be wary and wise. Think of your child’s mind as Vegas. What happens in there, stays in there.

Model Good Behavior

Children are not little adults. Their brains are not fully developed, and we cannot expect them to possess the judgment, restraint, and insight of a grown-up whose brain has spent decades forming and strengthening its neuronal pathways. Showing our kids that we love them even when they are mad at us, unreasonable, or having a meltdown communicates that we accept all their feelings; we don’t treasure them only when they behave well, but even when they’re at their worst. If we want our children to be flexible, we can’t meet them with rigidity and inflexibility. If we want our children to be cooperative and compliant, we can’t model angry, disrespectful conflict resolution with our partners. If we want our children to be considerate of others, we can’t snap at and talk down to store clerks, servers, and other community workers.

Children are quietly studying and absorbing from us, and our actions speak volumes more than sermons and long lectures. In fact, when children are dysregulated, they will hear little of what we say. Their lasting takeaway will be the visual imprint of an angry, disapproving face, wagging finger, and intimidating presence. Yes, we all have the right to be angry and occasionally blow a fuse. But at the same time, we don’t want our body language and tone of voice to impart to our child that our connection has been ruptured.

Connection Before Direction

My own children’s elementary school teacher, Ms. Albert, clearly understood the importance of these principles, and I was fortunate enough to observe her artistry up close. For years, I volunteered weekly to correct papers in her classroom, where the students were dependably quiet, happy, and busy. When a student would occasionally interrupt, shout out, or be disruptive in some way, Ms. Albert was unphased. She would gently lean in or crouch down, and say in a soft, warm tone something such as, “Eddie, I know you have something important on your mind. May we please hear more about it after the lesson?” I recall a time when another teacher with a reputation for the disorder came by Ms. Albert’s classroom and stopped at the doorway awestruck.

“You can hear a pin drop in here,” she said louder than necessary, at which the children giggled good-naturedly and got back to work. I was an unpaid volunteer but would have gladly paid good money for all I learned about parenting from Ms. Albert. Of course, we all want our children to behave, but we first need that Albertian connection before shelling out a direction. So too we want our children to work hard and finish their homework, but if repeated, futile homework harangues damage your relationship, then try this approach: Let the school deal with it. The school may email and call you as though your kid’s unfinished work represents parental dereliction. But meting out severe punishment for unfinished homework or a bad grade is unlikely to get to the reason behind your child’s issues peer-related problems, anxiety, learning difficulties, substance use, etc.; it is, however, likely to make your child resentful. Lessons are lost on a child who is upset or out of control. In fact, an effective way to handle a temper tantrum is as though it’s a panic attack. We certainly wouldn’t shout at a child experiencing a panic attack, punish them, or lock them in their room. It’s important to recognize that children are not trying to act out; this is the best they can do at the very moment. A child’s anger and panic will recede if we give them time and space rather than heatedly give them a time out. The best parenting advice I ever got was from my eldest teenage daughter who once sagely asked me, “Why are you punishing me? Why don’t you try to problem-solve with me?”

I Honestly Love You

When all else fails and you or your child are about to explode, there’s always the white truce flag. Tell your child that you are not in the right state of mind and that you want to discuss the issue later. When later comes, it would be lovely to apologize sincerely to your child for any harmful words spoken. And if your child also apologizes, try responding with more than just “Thank you.” This is an opportunity to model gratitude, forgiveness, and unconditional love, “I appreciate your apology. It’s not easy to do, and I’m proud of you and love you.” These are the sort of words my client “Smiley” never heard from her mother. It took her a long time to work through the pain of her mom’s harsh words and to finally see them not as “honest” truths, but as hurtful, deceptive lies.

  • Client identities and circumstances have been adapted to protect confidentiality.

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Dr. Beverly Wertheimer, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

As a former TV journalist working at ABC and NBC stations, CNN Turner Entertainment, and Entertainment Tonight, Beverly Wertheimer thrives on creating warm and immediate connections with others. In her current roles as CEO of BeWorthy life coaching, assoc. child and adolescent psychotherapist, and adjunct professor of psychology, Dr. Wertheimer is devoted to uplifting others and helping them solve even the most vexing problems. Her mission: Help people get whatever they want out of life...and then enjoy it!



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