Fresh Ideas: Parents can call a spade a spade

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As a Montessori educator, I’m often approached by my students’ parents looking for child-rearing advice. Sometimes they’re yearning for reassurance that the current power struggles they’re locked in are normal and age-appropriate. “Do I really have to let my child wear zebra-striped leggings with a Halloween T-shirt and red sequined shoes instead of the thoughtfully coordinated outfit I had laid out?” Other times they’re anxious to hear my thoughts on disciplinary methods soaked up from the Internet or discovered in parenting books. “Will taking away my son’s Buzz Lightyear toy for bad behavior lead to trust issues and years of therapy later in life?”

Recently, a conscientious parent approached me with concerns about her 4-year-old son’s new habit of lying. I was well aware of the problem as the child had frequently attempted to pull one over on me in class, often concocting elaborate tales of misfortune in which he cast himself as the tragic and hapless victim to explain away a broken piece of Montessori apparatus or another child’s skinned knee, going so far in one memorable instance as to enlist the help of a classmate to frame another for his crime. His mother had come to the conclusion that she should avoid labeling her son a liar, that if she called him that, that’s what he’d become. The parenting books she’d been studying suggested she tailor her language to differentiate her son from his behavior — a lie is something you do, not something you are.

This insight sounds pretty good on paper — hate the sin, not the sinner — but it breeds a delusion: that a person is not defined by the things he does.

Among the many milestones of psychic development in what Dr. Maria Montessori called the “conscious absorbent mind stage” — from ages 3 to 6 — is the formation of the personality. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer a child in his immense work of becoming himself is that of perspective, a lens through which to view himself objectively, the way others will. Through candid, tough-love discussion with a child about behaviors and their consequences, which include how others view him, he’ll gain the power to mold himself into the type of person he wants to be — honest and dependable, say — rather than simply developing blindly into a person he may regret becoming — the oily shyster, perhaps.

What my student’s worried mother needed to see was that calling someone a liar doesn’t make him a liar — lying does. She had nothing to fear in labeling her son a liar because he already was one, and not a very good one at that. With awareness comes insight, and children, regardless of age, need to understand who they are — to be able to define themselves in specific terms, positive or negative — so they can decide if they like these definitions, if they want to embrace and celebrate them or renounce and overcome them.

We live in a world of constant judgment, and we all hope to be judged first and foremost on the content of our character, which is demonstrated through action. As far as society is concerned, we are what we do. Parents shouldn’t fear the hurt feelings or loss of self-esteem that comes with a behavioral label like “liar” or “bully” or even “jerk”; instead, they should fear the behaviors that might escalate without them.

Josh Galarza is an award-winning author and educator. He lives and teaches in Minden.


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