Of trust and truthfulness

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/of-trust-and-truthfulness-1.1327018

Published May 2014

“Mom, I promise,” she says solemnly, looking into my eyes. Our discussion is about who pulled out my precious new plant right out of the soil, and obviously the two only possible culprits (who by the way, have fingernails full of soil) refuse to own up. The expression that adorns the two faces is the classic ‘hurt bunny’ one and their eyes are so full of innocence that I feel like a mean adult in spite of myself.

I sigh in exasperation and try once more. “Alright, I’m asking one last time. Who pulled out the new plant and then tracked the dirt all the way inside the house?” I’m hoping against hope that someone will nod and own up but the ‘hurt bunny’ expressions are as resolute as ever. The older one carefully makes a fist with both her hands and discreetly puts them behind her back, and the younger one, unaware, leaves her hands (and dirty nails) by her side.

There is obviously something wrong. As far as children’s misdemeanours go, this isn’t a particularly horrible one. God knows, children today are capable of much more. Why do my children not say they are in fact guilty? What am I going to do if they tell me the truth? At the most, I will get a little angry and then get them to clean up everything and replant the poor plant as best as they can. But their attitude confounds me and I wonder where I might have erred as a parent.

Do we make our children pay too heavy a price for telling the truth? Have I (perhaps unconsciously) cornered them on a previous occasion where they did come clean and made them feel small? There is no question about it — we can’t treat our children the way our parents treated us. Times have changed and children are very sensitive to the amount of respect a parent gives them. Has there been an occasion on which I have spoken to them in a way which made telling the truth seem like the worst decision they ever made?

The introspection is embarrassing as it is painful. What worries me is that this isn’t a mere childish incident; it is probably a precedent for life, for later decisions. My children, the people I am responsible for, are far more malleable than I realise and a flippant temper tantrum I may have had — and that I attach little importance to — may have done lasting damage. The thought scares me.

I pull the girls closer to myself and take a deep breath. “Right,” I say gently. “So you girls didn’t do it.” They shake their heads mechanically. Then I do the unthinkable. “Fine. I trust you. And here’s 20 minutes on the iPad for telling the truth!” They pump their fists and cheer, but the celebration is a little muted. They exchange dubious looks, but the lure of the iPad is too great. For the next 20 minutes, Temple Run, Fruit Ninja and Co are the sole object of attention and you can hear little except “No, it was MY turn,” and the sound effects of the games. I take the tablet away promptly when the clock says I must and in a very deliberate fashion I begin cleaning up the soil that has spilled indoors.

Of course I add a bit of drama and complain about my aching back to no one in particular, and look at them from the corner of my eye. Strangely enough, they are watching me, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say the faces wear guilty expressions. “But I didn’t do it!” the older one suddenly blurts out. Aha! I smile to myself at the moral victory. “Of course sweetheart. It must have been the wind,” I say matter-of-factly and continue with my task.

“But SHE started it! It was her idea!” the confession finally comes tumbling forth, with the predictable dumping of blame on the other sibling. I breathe easier. The situation demands wisdom and diplomacy. I do my best not to erupt as I might have on another occasion and pretty soon there are two young ladies wearing rubber gloves trying to re-pot an almost wasted plant.

I don’t know if my children have learnt anything by this, but I most certainly have. There is obviously lots of work that I need to do to create a relationship of mutual trust and as they pot the plant, I too pot an indispensable thought inside my head: Appreciate the times they tell the truth and if I do punish them — as a mother must sometimes — I must ensure that I tread carefully.

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