Issue No. 29, February-March 2011
If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything. ~ Mark Twain
Our George Washington moments
When I was a kid, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday by gluing white silhouettes of our first President to red and blue paper, reading about Valley Forge, the Continental Congress, wooden teeth and how, as a boy, he chopped down a cherry tree. Legend has it that when confronted by his father, he confessed to the deed with “I can’t tell a lie, Pa.” Today, the authenticity of the cherry-tree story is open to question, but a recent study by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment claims that adults tell an average of three lies per day. Most often, this study concluded, we lie to our partners, but we also lie to our coworkers and our friends. We lie about tasks done or not done, about what we’ve eaten, what we spend, where we’re going, where we’ve been, who we’ve been with today or long ago. What this study appears not to have explored is how often we lie to our children.
Raising a child with autism will test your commitment to truthfulness. Their concrete thinking patterns reject the illogical, the unjust, the nuanced. They crave order, logic and fact. But when truth will bring them grief, anger, anxiety or confusion, is it okay to lie? If we lie in the name of fun and tradition, will our child experience it that way? Every year at holiday time, I get questions about how to handle the Santa dilemma. Perpetuate the Santa myth, and what happens when the child discovers, years down the line, that you sold him an untruth? Ditto for the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. On more serious ground, when that first pet dies, isn’t it easier to tell the child that Fido was “put to sleep?” Is it lying to sneak vegetables into other foods, or to plead “no money” to avoid a scene in the toy store or grocery?
Only you can decide how deeply the untruths you tell your child, regardless of motivation, will affect your ability to build a trusting relationship with him. But in order to do so, we should ask ourselves, why do we lie?
We often perpetuate “fun” lies like Santa or the Tooth Fairy out of our expectation that our children will enjoy the same traditions we did. A child who views the world in concrete terms may see it quite differently.** I’m asked on a regular basis how I handled these things and, with the caveat that each family is unique, I always answer with this short excerpt from my 2006 essay, The Rules of Believing:
I told my kids that Santa Claus was a fun make-believe person, like Big Bird or Batman. This scandalized my boss. “What?!” he sputtered. “Are you telling me that Big Bird isn’t real?” Likewise, the Tooth Fairy in our house was actually a Tooth Ferry, a lovely wooden replica of the ones that steam back and forth across Puget Sound. The tooth still turned into a dollar bill by morning, but who did it was no mystery. When I attempted to inject a little exotica into the tooth experience by giving Connor a Fijian dollar, he quickly kicked me back to reality with his exasperated response, “Whaaa? I can’t spend this!” Bryce was even more direct: “I know it’s you. Can I just have the money?”
But beyond “fun” lies is the more complicated realm of everyday lies, the motivation for which is almost always to avoid uncomfortable consequences. That is, unpleasant reactions from the person to whom we are lying, whether that reaction be anger, anguish or retaliation. The problem with these kind of lies is that they may avoid a difficult moment, but do nothing to build good habits, decision-making and self-sufficiency skills or self-confidence in our children, the instilling of which requires patient and consistent repetition over the whole course of a childhood. And worse, such lies may spawn a more lasting problem.
Telling a child that Fido was put to sleep bypasses an opportunity to have a gentle, factual conversation about how all life has a beginning, a middle and an end. When beloved Fido is “put to sleep” and never comes back, the stage has been set for a child to develop long-term fears about going to sleep, sleeping alone, or loving another pet.
“Stealth health” recipes may succeed in getting a carrot into your child, but it doesn’t help him learn to make good choices about eating a balanced diet. I’m the first to admit this is a tough, tough row to hoe with many of our kids. But worse the scenario when your trickery is discovered and your child becomes even more recalcitrant about trying new foods.
Pleading “no money” to avoid a scene in a store is at least partially true part of the time. But if it’s happening regularly, it’s an opportunity to introduce the concept of discretionary exchange of money for goods, allowing the child a small allowance for each trip or each week, over which you exercise only reasonable veto power. A visual rules card for acceptable store behavior, reviewed before and during visits, helps the child build self-control and self-confidence.
The desire for my children’s trust drove my initial resolve to not lie to them, even in tough situations, even when I had to reveal my own shortcomings. But I soon came to believe that what we may consider benign, expedient lying to our children too frequently denies them opportunities to learn, grow and mature. That’s at the better end of the continuum of consequences. At the other end, we can be sure that our lying will eventually teach our children to do the same. More than one parent has suppressed a smile when telling me that their child with autism “finally told a lie.” Every one of these parents was conflicted. The joy of their child, prone to unfiltered brutal honesty, doing something so “normal” butted up against the dread of having opened such a Pandora ’s Box.
(Let’s note here that the socially confounding concept of white lies—lying to spare the feelings of another—merits a discussion all its own.)
I tried to make the to-lie-or-not-to-lie decisions easier for my sons by instilling in them that the lie was worse than whatever it was they would lie about, and that the consequences for lying would be sterner than for whatever the original transgression. I’m proud to say that, for lack of practice, they are terrible liars. Most of their lies were of the social face-saving variety. Although transparent, I let most of those slide. You will too.
The end of the George Washington tale is that George’s father told him that his honesty was worth more than any tree. Two hundred fifty years later, the scene repeated itself in my kitchen, albeit with a three- year-old and a bag of pilfered chocolate chips instead of a cherry tree. Both episodes are legend now, but Washington’s authentic words in later life are still ones to live by: "I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man."
A card of thanks
A century ago, bereaved families would publish “A Card of Thanks” in the local newspaper, a few lines acknowledging the community’s support in their time of loss. This is my card of thanks for all your heartfelt responses to the death of my brother, and to “No Whining on the Yacht” in the January newsletter. I wasn’t at all sure about putting myself out there in such raw (for me) fashion, but you have affirmed that shared sorrow = shared strength.
New column: Perspective: Rethink, Reframe, Relate
After a year’s hiatus, I’m happy to be returning to Autism Asperger’s Digest as a regular contributor. My new column, Perspective: Rethink, Reframe, Relate, will take up issues within autism, from the microcosm of the family to more global attitudes, and put them through an alternative lens.
“When it comes to ideas about autism and Asperger's, we must guard against complacency,” says managing editor Veronica Zysk. “In her new column, Ellen's cogent observations once again propel us into new realms of unexplored thought. It's a delight to have you back, Ellen!”
Meet me in Louisville
I’ll be speaking at the Kentucky Autism Training Center on April 7, where I’ll offer parents guideposts for facing their child’s autism with a healthy and productive outlook, and share a child’s-eye look at the primary characteristics of autism embodied in Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. Information can be found here.
Join the discussion
Lively discussions unfold every week on my Facebook author page. Find me and readers from more than twenty countries and add your voice to these important topics, and more.
Does food coloring affect behavior? What do you want your pediatrician to know about your child? What should you look for when choosing a preschool? Does your child face a “scary” future? How do autism-only classes and activities compare to inclusion?
A Tweet a Day
“When you feel like a juggler, remember that with practice, jugglers get the routine down and seldom drop the ball.” Join me on Twitter (EllenNotbohm), where I tweet a quote a day from The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled. It’s a great way to get to know my quietest book. Don’t the quiet ones often provoke the deepest thoughts?
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
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©2011 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies