I just watched my three year old paddle away with his grandma in a kayak. This was a big moment for him. He is not usually one for trying new things. Yesterday he told me he was afraid of a nectarine. Don’t even get me started on airplane toilets, airport toilets, or pretty much any public toilets. But let me tell you, getting him into that kayak was nothing short of a Herculean feat.
As is his usual modus operandi (I really just wanted to type that out once in my life!), he was so excited to go on the boat. He’d been talking about it all day. They were the first words out of his mouth this morning. Mine were “I need caffeine”. But as soon as we got to the beach he changed his mind. The sand was too scratchy. The life jacket was too puffy. The boat was too yellow. The water was too wet. You get the idea.
Now, ordinarily I don’t force him to do things he’s not comfortable with. That just leads to embarrassingly loud yelling and Mommy still losing the battle. However, lately I’ve found that giving him a little push is all he needs and then he has a really great time. The problem is, he is the most stubborn creature on the planet. So giving him a little push is more of a covert operation. If he senses that you are trying to force his hand in the slightest then he will dig his heals in and nothing short of threatening his toys will change his mind. No. If you want my son to do something he doesn’t want to do, you have to make him think it’s his idea.
Sometimes pure logic is enough to convince him to try something. “The nectarine just came out of the fridge so it couldn’t possibly be too hot.” Sometimes a little incentive does the trick. “If you take a bite of the nectarine Daddy will tell you about Venus for the 10,000th time.” Lately, I’ve found that the best way to get him to do something he doesn’t want to is to lie. This sounds much worse than it actually is. Perhaps, embellish the truth is a better way to put it. Or maybe creative incentivizing. “Didn’t you know that nectarines are Thomas the Train’s favorite fruit? When he eats one he can chuff extra fast for a whole hour. It’s like super coal.”
I’ve been doing this a lot lately. When he refused to use the toilet on the airplane because he thought the flusher was going to suck him out of the plane, none of my other tricks were working. I bribed him with tootsie rolls. I assured him that he couldn’t possibly fit through the hole in the toilet. I promised him I wouldn’t flush until he was all done. Nothing. So finally I told him that this particular toilet would only flush when the person using it had their feet on the floor. So as long as he kept his feet off the ground he would be safe. He was on board with that explanation.
There I was, crouched in the tiny airplane bathroom with my hands on his thighs and his feet on my shoulders, wondering whether it was all worth it. When SPLASH. When you’re a mom, you have to live for the small victories. I did a little happy dance in my head since my body was currently wedged between the sink and the toilet bowl. I used to judge parents who lied to their kids, but lying works. It’s a perfect reward based positive feedback loop. I lie, he agrees to poop, I no longer have to smell his farts the entire flight to Florida, I choose to lie again next time.
Sometimes the lies are less fantastic and more practical. This afternoon, I convinced him that if he got into the kayak with Grandma that he might be able to see the sea turtle from Finding Nemo. Now, my adult-sized brain told me that the chances of seeing a sea turtle in the waist-deep water, at noon, in January, while a very excited three year old shouted “Crush, dude!” at the top of his lungs, was close to zero. But I said it anyway. I knew I was lying, but I also knew that as soon as he got out onto the water he would forget about being afraid of the boat and just enjoy the ride. So I lied.
Since realizing that I’ve been manipulating him a lot lately, I’ve been wondering, “When is it ok to lie to your children?” While I think I’m using his imagination to open him up to new experiences, I’m also taking advantage of the unique position of absolute authority that I have as his parent. He believes anything I tell him. Is it irresponsible to knowingly mislead him? In 20 years will he be explaining to his therapist that the reason he has trust issues is because his mother used to lie to him all the time? Or am I simply using his own fantastic three-year-old reality to explain the world in ways that he is capable of understanding?
If I tell him its ok to walk barefoot on the beach because crabs don’t pinch, they tickle, and he gets pinched by a crab will he stop trusting me? At some point he is going to start seeing through my magical bullshit, and then what? Will he thank me for encouraging him to try new things as well as cultivating his growing imagination, or will he break out the lie detector every time I, or anyone else, tells him anything from then on? There is a fine line between raising a well-adjusted, creative man, and creating a sociopath with intimacy issues.
I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that the first time my youngest son refuses to wear sunscreen, I will tell him that it’s magic cream that has the power to make him invisible, and I will pretend to lose him. I will do this because it’s more fun than the truth about skin cancer and sunburns. I will do this because it’s easier than holding him down and rubbing it on against his will. I will do this because I am a good mother. I will do this because I’m a bad mother. I will do this because I can.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.