So much of parenting is about communication. Because children listen with their hearts as well as their minds, that communication had better be honest. If it’s not, your child will instantly know you for either a fool or a liar.
Being honest, though, is not the same as being judgmental. There is a time and a place for both. Most parents have discovered that, occasionally, passing judgment on someone or something simply encourages a child to push back, thereby turning into a fight something that ought to be a deep and principled discussion.
A good example of the way to be both honest and effectively judgmental (meaning getting your child to acknowledge your principles without pushing back) is the drug talk. Most parents of high schoolers have made the sad discovery that a certain percentage of their child’s peers are doing drugs. When you, the parent, hear such stories, you can be simultaneously honest and judgmental by stating your principled position about drug use. Mine is that drug use is very dangerous for children and teenagers. Even ostensibly mild drugs such as marijuana have a damaging effect on a young person’s intellectual and emotional development. (You can imagine the rest of the factual lecture here, because I’m sure you’ve given it yourself.)
What the wise parent avoids, though, is leveling an attack, not against the drugs, but against the drug user. As sure as the sun rises, if you attack an individual, your child will spring to that individual’s defense:
Mom: Boy, is that a stupid girl to be smoking pot at her age.
Child: She is not stupid. She gets really good grades.
That’s the moment the parent has lost control of the conversation. It’s now going to wend its way through various pointless rhetorical pathways, with the parent trying to prove that a teenager she’s never actually met is an idiot, while the child vigorously asserts that the teen is a paragon of virtue, but for the drug use.
The better way to keep the conversation going is to offer an honest opinion about your emotional response to that errant teen, or your sense of that same teen’s emotional status:
Mom: That’s so sad. In her Facebook picture, she looks like such a lovely girl, but drug use, especially when you start so wrong, is damaging at so many levels. She must be deeply unhappy or insecure to throw herself away with drug use.
Child: How can she be insecure? She’s always bossing people around.
Mom: People who have a genuine, bone-deep confidence, don’t feel the need to throw their weight around, or medicate their insecurities with illegal drugs. [And so on and so on.]
A parent who is honestly sympathetic to a child’s plight can be judgmental without forcing her child into a defensive posture. Using this technique, you can have conversations with your kids about hard topics – drugs, sex, social challenges – that are deep and without embarrassment, because the kids know that the parent will honestly talk facts, but avoid labels that trigger a self-defense, or peer-defense, mechanism.
Honesty also has the virtue of cutting straight through the euphemisms all people — and especially teenagers — use to hide the fact that a certain behavior is morally wrong or simply degrading. My favorite example of this is the talk I had with some girls I was driving to a high school dance. They were chatting excitedly about whether or not they would be asked to dance (yes, even in this modern day and age, the boys still ask the girls), and whether they should let a guy freak dance with them.
I couldn’t resist chiming in. “You know what freak dancing is, don’t you? Freak dancing is when a strange guy masturbates against your bottom.”
From the back of the car came a chorus of disgusted squeals. “Oh, my God! That’s so gross. I’m never going to freak dance.”
(Since they were in the back, they didn’t see my fist pump.)
I doubt I could have gotten such a dramatic, heartfelt response if I’d allowed the girls to think of freak dancing as “just a dance” or tried delicately to address the matter as “a sort of dance where the guy rubs himself against you.” Also, by going straight to the heart of the matter, without waffling, I also signaled to the girls that the type of dancing they were contemplating is something that they can talk about with me openly, without the need for embarrassment.
I am consistently honest with my children, and I’ve never regretted that decision. Even when my children catch me being dishonest (for better or worse, I’m a big believer in social lies that enable others to save face when it comes to issues that do not involve core ethics or morality), I explain what my thinking is and why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m the magician who shows every aspect of his tricks. And yet somehow, the magic is still there, because my children have absorbed my morality and values, and apply them to their daily lives.