Years ago, my then one-year-old son Ben played with a ball popper during playgroup. His friend Brooke found the same toy appealing and was displeased. She couldn’t form sentences yet, but she let Ben know his turn was up and the toy was rightfully hers. She babbled loudly right in his face for a full minute without stopping for air, then grabbed the toy. As my son drooled and looked at her wide-eyed, her mother sighed. “I think I’m in for it,” she told me. “I love her toughness, but my biggest fear is that she’ll grow up to be a mean girl.”
I reassured my friend that would never happen, that her daughter would instinctively follow her kind example. I made that comment long before switching fields to work as a school counselor. I now know better. One of my most dreaded tasks is telling a lovely parent that their child is wreaking social havoc. No one wants to raise an insensitive kid, but even the children of the nicest parents can go through a phase of being a less-than-decent human being.
I often see children behaving in ways that are hurtful and problematic, but this is part of growing up and testing limits. The girl who teaches all but one kid a secret language. The boy who purposely nails an unathletic kid in the head during dodgeball. The child who reneges on a promise to be a bus buddy when a better offer comes along.
Over the years, I’ve also seen kids make more consequential mistakes. Students who cheat on an exam or hack into a friend’s computer to destroy files. Teens caught skipping class or stealing school supplies or drinking at a football game. Kids who spearhead text chains that humiliate classmates.
For parents, it’s often simpler to preach kindness than to react to serious errors in judgment. It’s hard to imagine your own child behaving aggressively or lying, and easier to remain in a state of denial. Paradoxically, parents build kids’ character when they share their own mistakes and what they’ve learned, but that doesn’t feel intuitive. It can feel more protective to shield kids from any mention of wrongdoing.
I realized this during my first year as a high school counselor, when my student Teddy came to see me. He broke apart paper clips and fidgeted with his shoelaces as he steeled himself to talk. “My dad is cheating on my mom,” he told me. “I heard him talking to another woman, saying things.”
Over the next few months, Teddy grew increasingly upset about the situation at home. He was worried about his mom and furious at his dad, and he didn’t want to make things worse by letting on what he knew. When he hinted to his dad that he had concerns, his father shut down the conversation. When he started to fail a couple classes, I asked him if I could talk to his parents. He gave me permission as long as I didn’t share what he had confided in me.
I reached Teddy’s father first, and he asked to come in alone. “I’m going to be honest,” he told me. “If he’s dropping balls now, I’m worried what will happen when he finds out his mom is leaving me. We haven’t really talked to him about our problems.” Without divulging what Teddy had shared, I urged his father to initiate a conversation. “That’s a talk you might want to have,” I said, “or he’s going to come to his own conclusions without your support.”
Teddy’s father was inadvertently increasing his son’s anxiety. Children are almost always more aware of issues than their parents think, and their imagination can be darker than reality. By pretending everything was okay, Teddy’s dad transmitted the message that poor behavior and uncomfortable feelings must be buried. His secrecy left no room for discussion.
I’ve seen this parent-child disconnect repeatedly over the years. The mother who didn’t mention getting a citation for driving under the influence until her daughter saw it in the news. The father who was formally reprimanded for forging a receipt at work, but assured his son that it was no big deal. The dad who insisted to his daughter that he didn’t have a gambling problem.
In all of these cases, the kids had an inkling that something was up. Children study their parents, constantly making observations and deciphering snippets of conversation. The girl knew that her mother had a drinking problem. The boy carried the constant fear that his dad would mess up again and lose his job. The girl worried that her father would gamble away their home.
Ideally, parents are paragons of virtue, but mistakes also provide teachable moments. By owning their transgressions in developmentally appropriate ways, parents can demonstrate that they are opportunities to grow. They can model how to show remorse and make amends. Most importantly, honesty allows them to illustrate that good character matters and that poor choices have real consequences.
By admitting their flaws, parents also show kids that they are fallible human beings. When parents are authentic about how challenging it can be to do the right thing, they make it safe for kids to admit their weaknesses and seek advice.
Teddy’s father was reflective when he came to see me. He said that he wanted to repair the relationship with his wife, but he was pretty sure the marriage was over. He also decided to come clean to Teddy, to acknowledge that he made some pretty big mistakes and wanted to do better.
A few days later, Teddy stopped by my office. He was visibly less anxious. “It’s still not good between my parents,” he told me. “But at least my dad isn’t lying to me anymore, and I don’t have to make believe that everything is fine.” His dad had sent a clear message–lapses in character happen, but it’s what you do with them that matters.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. She regularly writes columns for The Washington Post on parenting and education. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at www.phyllisfagell.com.