Strengthen The Reality-Testing Mechanism

by Rick on January 15, 2014

How truthful can we be with kids?

Jim, a single fifty-five-year-old raising a five-year-old son, Luke, posed the following child-rearing question:

“I decided to have Luke when I was 49. Why a single man would suddenly decide to have a child at that age is another story, but I did. I did the whole thing: I used an egg donor, my own sperm, and found a surrogate to carry Luke. Last week, as I was making coffee, Luke asked: ‘Where did I come from?’

“Well, I told him the facts as simply as I could, and had to use some big words that he probably didn’t know. But yesterday a psychologist told me I shouldn’t tell him all that. It was not age-appropriate. What do you think?”

I told Jim that while, yes, we should not force kids to grow up too fast, he was absolutely right to “tell it to him straight.” Furthermore, trying to use only words that Luke will understand is the wrong focus. Our focus should always be strengthening kids’ reality-testing mechanism. In other words, tell the truth. Worrying too much about the big words he might not understand is condescending. It’s a little like talking baby talk to them.

“Hey! Don’t try to make things easy for me,” a child might say. “I know the world is a challenging place, and I want to be prepared for it. Just talk to me like I’m a whole person, and if I need to ask follow up questions I will. Otherwise, count on me to measure up to the challenge of understanding and adjusting my behavior and my language to respond to REAL situations.”  But of course he won’t say that, so we have to act as if it’s in his heart.

Luke did ask a question. Children from birth have an internal drive to thrive in the world, and so they are equipped with a reality-testing mechanism. They sense what they need to know. If a child asks a grown-up question, treat him like a grown-up. Respond to the question as accurately as possible.

Last week I met with a parent from my last school over a cup of coffee. She said, “Of all the things you said and wrote as head of our school, the one that keeps coming back to me most was your talk at the opening assembly of your last year at Children’s Day School. I will never forget your words at the end of your opening remarks! At least, this is what I remember you saying:

“ ‘We love you. Your teachers love you; I love you; we all do. You are very loved children. Just remember that doesn’t mean we will be easy on you. In fact it means the opposite. Loving you means that we will be hard on you. Your parents are not sending you here for us to make it easy for you. They want us to challenge you. If we do our job right you will struggle. You will make mistakes. You will have conflicts. You will fail, and at Children’s Day School, we think that is good. We want you to make as many mistakes as you can and learn from them. We believe you can handle it.’

“I was looking at the children while you spoke, and when you said, ‘We will be hard on you,’ I saw the student body sort of rise—literally. Their heads came up higher, they sat up straighter and there was pride in their faces. With my three girls I keep finding moments when I need this reminder.

“Your last first assembly was your best.”

Life is not to be sailed through painlessly without struggle, challenge, confusion, suffering, loss, failure and experience with death. Rising to these challenges requires a good decision maker, and making good decisions requires a good reality-testing mechanism. Building the RTM requires a lot of practice organizing incoming data, making decisions with it and then checking against results. The more complicated the data the better. Shielding children from facts, being “positive” instead of accurate, over-simplifying, and other forms of distorting reality compromise a person’s RTM and hinder preparation for life. Helping children apprehend and comprehend perpetually surprising reality is a necessary component of preparing them for it.

Children are designed to take a much wider range of input of all sorts than most adults realize, and when they ask for it, we should give it to them, and give it to them as straight as we possibly can.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Pamela Swallow January 15, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Clap! Clap! Clap! You’re a wise one, Rick.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD January 15, 2014 at 5:55 pm

I love the message of this post, Rick. “We love you AND we will be hard on you.” Kids need to overcome challenges in life and we need to be there to support them along the way.

Bill G. January 15, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Great post Rick. Josh is applying to high schools now and is gravitating toward schools that will be more challenging. He said “I’m afraid I’ll get lazy at an easy school.”

Lizzie January 15, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Thank you dad! This perspective , that being a reliable RTM is all that is necessary has saved my sanity. when my 5 yr old knowingly tells me that “that’s not a morotcycle, it’s a dirt bike, they do tricks.” Or my 3 year old shrieks in disagreement at blowin his nose. What they are doing is only testing reality.
To be a RTM takes my worry away that they won’t be able to make good choices in the world. It also gives a new meaning to ‘logical consequences’. Neither coddling nor harsh punishment happens in the ‘real’ world for the kinds of misbehavior that boys get into.
What I wish every parent could experience as I have in this past month is the revolution that occurs when you can show irritation for the sake of teaching them their behavior is irritating vs. actually letting their behavior irritate or upset you. A priceless shift. We are grateful for your insights, Dad.

Marty Dutcher January 16, 2014 at 7:38 am

Nice, Rick. I do think we err too often on the side of trying make things easy, as well-intentioned as that is. I prefer, from experience, to think it is not useful to either make things easy or hard for children or students. At the same time, a challenging engagement is way more satisfying than an easy one (as you and I know in our challenges). I was reading a book by Daniel Pink, To Sell is Human. I really liked the distinction someone he mentions draws between “irritation” and “agitation.” Irritation is when someone tries to get you to do something THEY want you to do. Agitation is when someone tries to get you to do what YOU want to do. I think we parents and teachers, due to our own history and especially schooling, do more irritating than agitating. Intentionally making things “hard” or “easy” for our children strikes me more on the irritation scale, but I’d love to hear some responses from students on this! By the way, you agitate me and I really appreciate it!!

Marty Dutcher January 16, 2014 at 10:09 am

I love Lizzie’s post, too, and how powerful it is to not be a victim of our children’s RTM. I ditto the wish that every parent could experience their children’s behavior as a learning opportunity (RTM) rather than as something bad or wrong. And it’s way more fun!

Gary Gruber January 17, 2014 at 3:23 pm

The maxim that I heard many years ago and tried to practice consistently was whatever you tell a child be sure you don’t have to go back and tell it differently because you didn’t tell the truth the first time. You might not have to tell the whole truth but whatever you do say, make sure it’s honest. Kids can often handle more than we think they can and we are often really just trying to protect ourselves.

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