Sean and I have a bit of a habit of “kidding” each other, and it’s something we’ve carried over to how we interact with the children. To explain what I’m even talking about here, I’m going to have to give an example.
“Mommy, are we rich?” Sally asked me recently.
“Well, we have plenty to eat and a safe place to live and lots of friends, so I’d say yes, we’re rich,” I responded.
This was not the best answer, maybe, but I wasn’t exactly in the position to explain things like global inequalities in that specific moment. It’s not that preschool is two young to teach those things, it’s just that I don’t always have time to drop everything and launch into a lecture on poverty or wealth inequality.
“Well Robin Hood was rich, because he had many friends!” Sally said.
“Would you like to be like Robin Hood when you grow up?” I asked.
“No!” she laughed. “I’m not a fox!”
“Yes you are,” I said. “You have a tail.”
“No I don’t!” Sally objected.
“Look behind you and you’ll see it!” I responded.
I don’t know if this is something most families do. I don’t even know why we do it. It’s about poking good-natured fun, I suppose. I knew that Sally sometimes became annoyed by such joking, but this time she was very direct about it.
“Don’t lie to me, mommy!” she burst out.
“I was only joking with you, honey,” I explained.
“Do you like it if I lie to you, mommy?” she asked.
” . . . no.”
“Then don’t lie to me either!”
And so, I’ve made an effort to stop kidding her like this.
For one thing, I try to respect Sally’s requests and boundaries and take her feelings seriously. For another thing, I’m continually surprised by how different children’s perceptions can be of something than adults’ perceptions. To me, this is just joking, kidding, good-natured teasing. But what she hears is me saying things that are not true, which is something I tell her she shouldn’t do. What she sees is what looks like a double standard.
Now, maybe she just doesn’t understand the nuance here, the difference between joking and lying, but that doesn’t mean her perception should be discounted. But when I’ve tried to explain this, Sally is insistent that telling the truth is important, and that “joking” is not an acceptable exception to that rule. For me, then, this is part of listening to my children.
Not every child is the same. Some children might just laugh along at the idea that they could have a tail and enjoy the joke. Sally does not. This is one thing that annoys me about so much of formula parenting—it assumes children are all the same, or will respond in the same way, when they aren’t, and won’t. Parenting is about forming healthy relationships with your children, relationships that are reciprocal, relationships where listening and learning goes both ways. The thing about relationships is while there are some important general relationship guidelines—things like communication, compassion, compromise—no two relationships are, or should be, identical. The same is true with parents’ relationships with their children.
Sean and I still kid each other, but I’m a lot more restrained in that area when it comes to Sally. I’m respecting her feelings and bearing in mind how such kidding comes across to her. The child’s perspective is often different from the adult’s perspective, but that doesn’t mean the child’s perspective should be ignored or belittled. Far from it! How else to teach children respect than to show them respect? It’s not about wanton indulgence, it’s about modeling healthy relationship skills.