My 8-year-old daughter recently lied to me. I told her that someday we could watch the Harry Potter movies, but that they were too scary for her right now. She recently spent a few days with my father and stepmother. I asked about what she did with them including, “Did you watch any movies?” She replied yes and told me the names of two movies she had watched on previous occasions. When I called my stepmother to thank her for having my daughter, she laughed about how they had watched four Harry Potter movies, how they seemed too scary but my daughter just snuggled closer to her. I was livid — the 10+ hours of screen time is revolting, to begin with — but most of all, I was deeply hurt over my daughter’s lie to me. How can I teach her to make better choices, even when offered temptations, and to be honest so that I can trust her?
Your question speaks to a fundamental truth about children: They want what they want when they want it. While it is a noble child indeed who turns down the offer of a forbidden movie they have long wanted to see, most 8-year-olds don’t yet have the maturity or impulse management skills to just say no. Here are my thoughts:
• Avoid similar problems in the future. Have you talked with your parents about your position on movies? Have you discussed ratings or asked them to check in with you before they let your daughter watch something? It is unrealistic to expect your daughter to be self-monitoring when it comes to the offer of special fun at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Talk with your parents directly about those things that are especially important to you about your daughter’s care.
• Teach trust. The only real way to impart your values to your children is to live them. Lectures can help, and even letting them experience unpleasant consequences when they forget to do the right thing can make an impact. But the most important thing you can do is to let your daughter see you behaving in ways that make people want to trust you. Share with her times when you have been tempted to lie so that you could do or have something you wanted. Be human and be honest.
• Don’t take it personally. You say that you were deeply hurt by your daughter’s decision to lie about the movies, implying that it was a deliberate choice she made to injure you emotionally. This is a very dangerous way to parent, and I urge you to see it more as an opportunity your daughter took to do something forbidden than an act intended to hurt you.
• Let her do repair work. Explain to your daughter your disappointment, but go on to let her know how she can rebuild your trust. Again, while I see this as an issue that would best be resolved directly with your parents, your daughter did know that she was not allowed to watch the movies when she agreed to do so with her grandparents, so she isn’t off the hook. Let her know that trust is earned and tell her some of the ways she can restore in you the sense that she is trustworthy. Please also remind your daughter of the many ways you still do trust her so that she understands that this trusting her is not a black-and-white proposition.
• Talk about how it feels to withhold the truth. When your daughter failed to tell you the truth about the movies she had watched, she probably felt like she had swallowed a frog. If you haven’t already, spend some time with her exploring what that felt like on the inside. “I imagine you felt really nervous, and maybe kind of bad, when you didn’t tell me you had watched the Harry Potter movies. What was that like for you, honey, to know you weren’t telling the truth?” The more you can help your daughter access her own discomfort about being dishonest, the more she will move toward telling the truth simply because it feels so much better.
I wholeheartedly agree with your decision to keep your daughter from seeing scary images in movies like Harry Potter that are far too mature for her young eyes. But hopefully you bend the rules a little when it comes to letting your parents do some things with your daughter that she doesn’t get to do at home. Part of the fun of going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house is breaking a few rules, like having a cookie before dinner, or watching TV a little past bedtime!