Assisting Families in Transition

Children, Truthfulness, and Parents’ Biases

Imagine this scenario:

A teen comes back from spending time with parent A. When parent B asks how the weekend went, the teen says that parent A “did not feed me.” Shocked, parent B inquires further, but the teen sticks by the story. Parent B, concerned about this neglect, immediately contacts Child Protective Services and an attorney. The attorney files for an emergency protective order denying parent A access to the child until the Court can further assess Parent B’s allegations.

At the subsequent hearing where parent A is allowed to provide a defense, the judge begins to suspect something is not quite right about the allegation. The judge conducts an interview of the child in the privacy of the judge’s chambers. There, the rest of the story emerges.

The teen admits to being angry at parent A when that parent denied a request to have some candy just prior to dinner. Following dinner, the child returned to parent B–still angry–and told that parent about not being fed. Of course, there is some truth in the statement, but critical information was omitted. It wasn’t that the parent failed to feed the teen entirely, but instead did not feed the teen candy.

The moral of the story? Parents in conflict are more likely to make two fundamental parenting mistakes by assuming that

  • Every word out of the child’s mouth is the Gospel Truth; and
  • The story contains enough information to make a good parenting decision.

To reduce the likelihood that children will learn to manipulate their parents in this way, coparents must consult with each other about the stories their children tell them. Do this by stating the facts and leaving out accusations. Then use that information to inform your decision.

Parent B could have called parent A and informed her/him of the facts. “Our [son/daughter] came home and said you did not feed [him/her]. What’s your take on that?” Notice, there is no accusation or blame in that statement.

Parent B would have learned from parent A, “Oh, [she/he] is just mad at me because I didn’t let [her/him] have candy before dinner.”

That, of course, could have led to much more effective parenting. Children will naturally attempt to manipulate situations to obtain what they want–they do so in intact families, too. When parents do not communicate about those things, children learn quickly how to take advantage of that gap in verifying stories.

If you find yourself in these situations, stop yourself from reacting immediately other than to say, “Oh? Thanks for letting me know. I’ll talk to your [mother/father] and we will get it worked out.” Resist the urge to assume the worst from your coparent.  Get more information. Then make your parenting decision. Children will learn they cannot play their parents against each other when the parents verify the stories told to them.

Originally posted on April 30, 2012