She had a handful of toys and a face full of shame. At the toy box, her baby brother was crying terribly, catching his tearful breath on hiccups. In one glance, I knew my daughter had somehow hurt her brother.
I had to reign in my blame reflex, because I knew she would clam up at the first sign of anger. While Daddy consoled the baby, I removed the preschooler from the scene and into neutral territory. I took a deep breath and began. “What happened, sweetie?”
This is the tricky part: sowing trust into our relationships with our children so that they want to be honest with us when they’ve made mistakes. So that when they’re teenagers and have encountered a serious issue, they won’t see their parents as immovable walls of judgment, but as those who will be able to help them navigate difficult moments with understanding.
Her face was hidden in her hands, and a muffled voice emerged between stiff fingers. “I’m not telling,” she said.
“Why not?” I hoped to loosen her self-preservation enough to allow some truth-telling to escape.
“I’m not telling because I’m too embarrassed.”
“I understand that, but listen, honey. If I can’t find out what happened to the baby, I won’t know how to check if he’s okay. I won’t know where to look or how to make it better. So even if you’re embarrassed, I need to know what happened.”
Then, the most delicate of paths appeared before me, and I gingerly eased myself forward.
“When you tell mommy the truth – even if it’s embarrassing – you will never get in trouble. Truth is always the right answer, no matter what you did.”
I held my breath, waiting for understanding to bloom.
Sometimes in these moments it feels like I’ll turn blue for lack of spitting out the words I wish I could say. The words about punishment and force and anger clog my throat, swelling. If I speak them, I might gain a momentary victory; she might obey out of fear, but after ten or twelve years of this sort of enforcement, I doubt I’d have a child who would trust me enough to include me in her daily worries or joys.
“You know what helps me feel less embarrassed after I’ve done something wrong?” I kept talking, feeling my way through her fear. “I don’t talk about it at all. I just show it. Can you show me what happened to the baby?”
I hoped the alternative would enable her honesty. Slowly, she took her face out of her hands. She walked behind me where I was crouched on the floor, and she punched me quickly on the back until I stumbled forward.
And I did see: I saw that her punching the baby made me teeth-clenching angry. But I also saw that she was willing to share the facts in a four-year-old’s version of instant replay. I saw that I hadn’t helped her erect a wall to keep me out.
There was much to do after her confession, but none of it included punishment. To coax honesty from her and then throw it back as a reason to enforce trouble would surely encourage lying in the long run.
We talked about why she punched, and why punching is hurtful. We checked the baby’s back for knuckle marks. We kissed his forehead.
I exhaled anger and inhaled the promise of a truthful future. That delicate path just became a little bit sturdier.