“You put WHAT in here?” I barked incredulously, holding the large plastic cup with my gloved thumb and forefinger a good arm’s length away from me.
“We were making a smoothie,” Elle explained, unsure as to why I was so offended by this particular backyard “cooking” experiment. An empty shampoo bottle lay on the snow-packed patio, alongside an open container of sunscreen and –
“Is that my toothbrush?”
Elle nodded solemnly.
“We needed something to stir it with.”
I peered again at the slushy concoction Elle and her best friend had just created in our backyard, while they had been left unattended for (obviously) too long. The evidence left scattered across the patio revealed that the two kindergarteners had emptied the bathroom shelves in their quest for special ingredients to add to their snow-smoothie. “But why is it brown?” I wondered, still suspicious of the contents of this creative masterpiece.
“It’s a poop smoothie!” Elle trilled. “We are going to give it to Paddy!”
My jaw dropped. What ever happened to sugar and spice and everything nice? Elle, a moment ago so proud of this clever ruse, took one look at my face and ascertained that this game had gone too far.
(I will interject here that our friend Paddy is a giant-sized goofball and veritable kid magnet. I’m quite certain Paddy would heartily applaud the concept of a poop smoothie, so the fact that the girls made him one lessened the gag-factor and almost, almost made it funny that my school-aged child thought it clever to make a drink out of dog poop.)
But all excuses, explanations, and avoidances of reality aside, you know you’ve failed as a parent when your child is playing with poop.
I then proceeded to give Elle the lecture of her life, telling her that if I EVER, EVER found her doing anything like that again, boy would she be in Trouble, with a capital T.
(Craig then warned Paddy to be dubious of strange-smelling beverages crafted for him by sweet and innocent little girls.)
Fast-forward one week, and Elle and her friend are together again, this time at a casual restaurant while their fathers watch Sunday football.
“Emme, we found your orange juice!” Elle gushes, handing the small plastic cup she just brought from outside to her little sister.
My 3-year-old takes a big drink. And immediately starts to cry.
“It’s spicy!” Emme whimpers, as Craig peels the lid off the cup and takes a swallow. He tastes something chemical, inedible, potentially toxic.
“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN HERE?”
The fear and panic in her father’s voice quickly brings Elle to the sharp realization that whatever just happened was really, really bad.
“ELODIE PROHASKA, WHAT DID YOU PUT IN HERE?” her father says again, and she can see he is trying his hardest not to yell at the top of his voice.
She might be in Trouble, with a capital T.
And so she responds: “Nothing.”
For the next three hours, no amount of cajoling, pleading, or threatening would change her answer. “Nothing” remained her response, even when we explained that we really needed to know what was in that drink in case it could make Emme sick. “Nothing” remained her response, even when we explained that everyone makes bad decisions sometimes, and that there might be consequences to pay, but that the consequences of lying about a mistake are always worse than ‘fessing up right away.
“I didn’t put anything in Emme’s drink!” Elle sobbed, tears streaming down her face, when we asked for the umpteenth time what caustic ingredients Emme could have ingested with her orange juice.
Craig and I were at an impasse, and at a complete loss as to where to go from here. Could she be telling the truth, after all? Are we terrible parents for not believing her? Or have we inadvertently raised a spectacularly accomplished liar?
She sat in her bedroom, eyes red and face puffy from crying, as we whispered these fears to one another in the hallway.
I had just one more tool in the toolbox, one that I remembered my mother using when I was an adolescent prone to omitting the truth to escape the consequences of my actions.
“Elle, Daddy talked to your friend’s father, and he said you girls did put something in Emme’s drink. Why don’t you tell me now what it was,” I said, at the time not acknowledging the irony that my efforts to get my kid to tell me the truth involved lying through my teeth.
“I had some hand sanitizer in my pocket,” she finally broke down.
Although we were relieved to finally have an answer, and could toss away our fear that Emme’s esophagus was going to suffer irreparable damage from some toxic cleaning agent found in an unlocked restaurant cabinet, we didn’t actually feel that much better. We had eventually strangled the truth out of our 5-year-old, but at what expense? She was a mess, we were a mess, and ultimately, would our handling of this situation actually prevent her from lying again, or make her more inclined to?
Peggy Drexler, research psychologist and author, explains that while most parents’ natural reaction to their children’s lying was like ours – shock, followed by anger and disbelief – it’s important to take a step back and assess the causes of a child’s lie in the first place.
“Most lies kids – and, for that matter, adults – tell are self-serving, and told to avoid trouble or punishment, look better in the eyes of others, or get (or get away with) something,” Drexler writes in a parenting blog for the Huffington Post.
Essentially, most kids lie not because they have some psychological disorder or have been subjected to sub-par parenting (Craig and I breathe a collective sigh of relief here), but because they are trying to change a situation, to reconstruct things the way they want them to be.
Clearly, Elle had no intention of poisoning her little sister. The threats I had made to her following the poop smoothie incident were likely ringing loudly through her ears when she found herself again under the microscope for concocting a tainted beverage. Had I been more explicit in my explanations as to why tricking someone into drinking something yucky wasn’t appropriate, rather than simply throwing around ominous threats about being in Big Trouble, perhaps Elle would have felt less afraid to tell us the truth. Next time, we vowed, we will handle a potentially sticky situation more calmly, and with more trust and less threats, which will lead to our daughter to feel more comfortable in telling us the truth. Right?
Well, not so fast. After recounting the whole story to my mother, she smiled and shook her head knowingly. “That won’t be the last time your kid’s going to lie to you.”
To my dismay, research backs up my mom’s assertion. It's entirely normal for kids to experiment with lying, starting at an early age – sometimes as early as two – and escalating until 12, “the age of greatest deceit,” according to studies conducted by Canadian researcher Kang Lee.
Fabulous. I guess that means I will be making many more fake “calls” to my daughters’ friends’ parents in the years to come, seeking forced admissions of the truth. But, too, for my own sanity and for my daughters’, perhaps I should take a cue from French philosopher Voltaire, who asserts: “Love truth, but pardon error.”