Our delightful schatzi is almost two years old! As she approaches this milestone of a birthday, I can’t help but think about her growth and development, and of course all the ways my husband and I will mold and shape how she perceives herself and her place in this world. Pretty lofty thoughts, I know, as we enter the era that is supposed to be ridden with tantrums, meltdowns, failures to communicate and general orneriness. Even so, I realize we are teaching our toddler more than just words and numbers at this stage—we are also planting seeds which, over time, will take root in her brain.
Parents tell their kids all kinds of lies throughout childhood. Perhaps the most well-known and socially accepted lie is the one surrounding Santa Claus, or, in the case of my half-American, half-German child, also the “Christkind.” I’ve always had some issues regarding the Santa Clause lie, mainly because of my own horror at finding out the whole Christmas fairy tale was a complete farce at the tender age of 8 and the mental anguish I suffered as I realized that EVERYONE—to include my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, even older cousins (!)—had participated in and perpetuated this ruthless propaganda for years of my life. I felt so ashamed and gullible as I ruminated on all the ways I had been duped, and my own complicit suspension of reality was the worst realization of all because I suppose I knew, deep down, that flying sleds and the whole bending of the time-space continuum to deliver billions of gifts in one night was a little absurd. It was the end of my innocence, and since that time I have prided myself in my candor, however abrupt and awkward it might be at times. My forthrightness was tested that very first Christmas, when I did all of my younger cousins a favor and promptly told them that Santa Claus didn’t exist. Needless to say, this made for a miserable Christmas and I’m not quite sure some of my relatives have since forgiven me for this radical Christmas Eve announcement.
That said, despite my ongoing to desire to speak the truth at whatever cost, I do see some merit in telling little lies. After all, for those 4 or so glorious years of ignorant bliss when I did believe in magic, my imagination was filled with endless possibilities about life and the nature of the universe. Vehicles powered by happy thoughts? Awesome! Talking animals? Amazing! Elves working all year to design toys just for me? Heck yeah! In retrospect, the Santa Claus lie didn’t really hurt me very much. The pain was fleeting, and, if anything, provided a keen reminder to employ a bit more critical thinking over fantastical claims. That lie did serve a purpose.
If lies can serve the greater good, then maybe I should give some thought to a couple of really good whoppers, to give our little gummibärchen a boost here and there. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it? If our society already accepts lying as a part of the parenting experience, then why shouldn’t we apply it more broadly?
So I’m thinking about telling our daughter that I am really, really good at math. Like, so good at math that I won all kinds of math awards in elementary school and came very close to majoring in mathematics (or even applied physics) in college. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth—I have always struggled with math, and while we could argue over whether it was a matter of raw aptitude or my disrupted education, bouncing all over the world with my military family, I think it’s safe to say that it’s never come naturally to me. Another theory centers around a very pivotal evening at the dinner table doing my homework with my parents sometime around third grade. I was having a difficult time with whatever I was working on at the time, and I very clearly remember both of my parents telling me, “We’re terrible at math!“ I remember at that moment feeling very let down by this, becasue even though I didn’t have much of a handle on genetics or genetic traits at this age, I was smart enough to know that this somehow didn’t bode well for me. That seed was planted and took root. WE ARE NOT GOOD AT MATH IN THIS FAMILY. Even though I appreciate my parent’s honesty and all of their genuine help with math homework throughout my schooling, I wonder if they had never told me that truth (if it was, in fact, a “truth“) if I would have perceived my capabilities a bit differently, or maintained a higher level of confidence about math as I continued with school.
I offer another example: I took Chemistry my junior year of high school and worked alongside a fun and smart lab partner, Erin. She and I were pretty well matched, I think, and worked hard on our lab problems and solutions. A few weeks into the semester, our teacher started telling the class that Erin and I were his best students. I can’t speak for Erin, but I was shocked. I mean, the really really smart kids in our year group were in this class too, and surely they were performing better than we were!? I was deeply, deeply puzzled by this pronouncement. But it worked wonders for my confidence in science (and to be fair, there was a decent amount of math required for those Chemistry labs, too…), and later that year our teacher was so convinced of Erin‘s and my prowess in Chemistry that he nominated us to represent our high school at the annual state competition. We didn’t take home any awards that year, but it cemented in my mind two things: a love of science and the belief that I was good at it. So indeed, words—lies and truths—can be extremely powerful.
Fastforward to today. I have an opportunity now to shape my own daughter’s perceptions of herself. I already tell her that she’s beautiful (realizing this is very contentious in the mommy blogsphere because it’s regarded as superficial, but really, what child shouldn‘t think he/she is attractive?? Isn’t that a positive thing?), that she is smart, that she is very, very courageous and brave, that she is naturally curious about the world around her, and that she is very perceptive about people’s feelings and emotionally intelligent. She doesn’t understand a word of this yet, but she gets the general idea as I clap, nod, exclaim, “Great job!“ and flash beaming smiles her way. It won’t take long for those words to sink in.
So what’s a mother to do, to get in front of a potential mathophobia? Perhaps the solution lies in a lie. I’ll tell her that her father and I are geniuses, but we CHOOSE to live a middle class life to keep her grounded and our family time intact. I’ll tell her that math was my best subject, and if I could do it all over again I would study only math (this is only a partial lie) and speak the language of mathematics instead of the other languages I focused on over the years. I will tell her that she can choose to do pretty much whatever she wants as a career, but if I were a betting mother, I would bet she would choose something in math and science.
Is this so wrong?? I mean, is this lie more wrong than lying to her about Santa Claus or the Christkind? It can’t be. If we had to choose, surely a lie that would push her academically is better than one that only indulges gift giving and good behavior blackmail, right?
There’s a whole other side to this subject, too, which I haven’t addressed yet—the “Tiger Mom“ approach. Tiger Moms essentially do away with verbal praise altogether in exchange for results. The Tiger Mom doesn’t tell her children they are intelligent or dumb; if they get good grades, it’s because they earned them. If they don’t, it’s because they were lazy and didn’t work hard enough. This phenomenon in Asian culture is very compelling, and there’s enough fodder from my Calvinist-Dutch upbringing for me to see some merit in this method.
But this approach doesn’t work for me. I suppose there are people who are motivated by negative reinforcement, but I am not one of them. Looking back, I can tie my academic and professional trajectories and successes to those moments when I received praise and encouragement in those areas. Positive reinforcement always led to improvement; negative ones (like being told I wasn’t good at math) always steered me the other direction. I think a hybrid approach could be useful: engage in praise but also hold children accountable for those times when they are not working up to their potential.
Labels of all types can stick: smart, lazy, fun, pretty, personable, kind, sensitive, touchy, rude, sweet. It’s a good idea to be judicious about how we ever use them with children. Telling your child he always sings off key, which may very well be true, can instill an insecurity. Maybe his pitch would improve with some training, but because he now thinks he’s tone deaf, he will never know.
This is why well intentioned, positive little lies can do wonders for self esteem. My daughter may never be a mathematician—but at least with my method, she may have a fighting chance!
Now the hard part: What to tell her this Christmas!