“You’re Okay” and Other Lies We Tell Children

Lies We Tell Children

Carlie is three years old and running through the playground. She trips on a truck and falls hard on the ground. Carlie begins to cry – loud. An educator scoops Carlie up in a big hug and says, “you’re okay, it’s just a graze. Let’s get you a bandaid.” 

Is Carlie really okay? 

Does the educator really believe that she is okay? 

What is the intention in telling her that she is okay? 

The lies we tell children

Earlier this week, I asked our team for some of the best “lies” that they have either said (hey – none of us is perfect!) or heard used in early education and care. And boy were there some winners, including: 

  • “Maybe later” 
  • “We don’t hurt our friends”
  • “We are all friends here” 
  • “You get what you get and you don’t get upset” 
  • “I’ll tell Santa that you aren’t doing xyz” 
  • “Come on, it’s yummy – everyone loves pumpkin!” 
  • “Put your jumper on, it’s cold and you’ll get sick.”

The list could go on (maybe you can share some that you’ve said or heard in the comments)

Let’s unpack those lies we tell children and provide the alternative/truth:

“Maybe Later” – classic parent line (I say, wearing my parent hat) No one who says “maybe later” really means it. What it really means is “There’s no way I am doing that now, but I really need you to stop bugging me about it!” It’s the classic fob off. So, should you just say “stop bugging me – it’s not going to happen buddy!”? Probably not. But you can be honest with a child. If they aren’t going to be allowed to use all of the blocks on the shelf to build a tower to climb over the fence – tell them that, and tell them why!

“We don’t hurt our friends” – actually WE DO. Does this message suggest that if you hurt someone they aren’t your friend? Or does it suggest that because you hurt them, you cannot be friends? Even as adults, we sometimes hurt our friends – either physically or emotionally. Perhaps what we really need to say is “Sometimes we make mistakes and hurt people.” 

“We are all friends here” – Are we? Are you friends with all of your colleagues? Awesome if you are, but let’s be honest – that’s not always the case, nor does it need to be. We can be kind and respectful without being friends. What about if we said “Being kind to others is important here.”  (And keep in mind that there is a whole bunch of conversation around what kindness is and how it feels, that needs to take place to help children really understand that concept. This book may be helpful here)

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Rubbish – sometimes you get upset. And that is okay. As we grow into adults it becomes far easier to adapt and accept that we don’t always get exactly what we want, but to be fair as adults we are often in control of getting what we want. If I want a blue car, then I will buy a blue car. If I end up buying a red one, that’s on me. If a child wants the blue cup and we hand the cups out at lunch time and give them a red one, that’s not their choice. And that’s often where the trouble starts – when children don’t get the opportunity to make a choice, to exert even just a tiny bit of power in their day. It might feel like wanting the blue cup is just “being difficult or demanding”, but it might be the only choice the child has made today. It’s important that we look for as many opportunities as possible for children to have power over their choices. What about instead of this harsh – albeit catchy – line, we were to say “I understand you are upset. You wanted a blue cup, but I don’t have any blue cups left. I do have green and red though – would you like to choose which one you would like?” 

“I’ll tell Santa…” This one often gets trotted out in the lead up to Christmas, a weapon in the behaviour management arsenal that not only is a lie (I know you do not have Santa’s phone number – he is a deeply private kind of guy) but is emotional manipulation at it’s finest. What about instead of this we said “Can we talk about why you hit Beth? She is crying and has a red mark on her forehead.” And then have a conversation about what happened. Often when we go into a conversation with children about their “behaviour”, we understand that there is a much bigger picture – something that idle threats would never have unearthed. 

“Come on, it’s yummy – everyone loves pumpkin” – Actually they do not. We all have different preferences which need to be respected. Sure, this one might be well-intentioned – it is great to encourage children to try new things, but we can do this in other ways such as “sometimes our tongues need lots of tastes of something to decide if we like something or not. I didn’t like peas for a while, but I kept trying them and now I love them.” 

“Put your jumper on. It’s cold and you’ll get sick.” Wrong. We get sick from germs and not from the cold. Again, a well intentioned lie. We want children to be warm, we want families to know we are caring for their child. Really young children may need us to put their jumper on for them, but for older (toddlers and preschoolers) children, they can typically put on and take off a jumper themselves, and are pretty skilled at determining if they are cold or not. A four year old running laps of the playground is far less likely to need a jumper than the shivering educator who is standing still supervising. Perhaps instead, we could have a conversation with the child and draw their attention to how their body is feeling. “I am so cold. Are you cold? I noticed that you don’t have your jumper on. Look at the little bumps on your skin. Look at the colour of your hands. Do you think they might mean that you are cold? Do you think you might need your jumper or are you feeling okay? I’m worried that you will get cold.”

Why do we tell these lies? 

I don’t think we lie to children with evil intention. Typically, these lies are told in an effort to do the best for children – to calm them when upset, to help them develop healthy eating habits, to support them to be kind, to keep them safe. The problem with these lies is that they underestimate children’s capacity for understanding. They are a “quick fix”, something to stop a behaviour, or challenge in it’s tracks. 

Why should we try things another way?

We know that children are capable of rich conversation, thinking, problem solving. But, when we use these lies with children, we rob them of the opportunity to do that. There are no “quick fixes” when it comes to children – that’s part of the incredible responsibility  and opportunity that comes with being an educator. Slowing down the way that we interact with children, the way that we help them to solve a problem, gives them room to think and to develop. 

Finally – don’t be too hard on yourself

Okay, so you read this post and thought “I’ve said some of those!” This post isn’t designed to make you feel bad about yourself or to question your ability as an educator, or parent. It is to encourage you to reflect and to evolve, to try other strategies and ways of communicating with children. Who knows, I might even stop saying “Maybe later” when my six year old asks if she can do an experiment with every possible ingredient in my pantry!

Let us know what lies you’ve told or heard told to children, in the comments!

Brought to you by Explorations Early Learning
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Author

Nicole Halton is an early childhood consultant and one of the co-founders of Inspired EC - an Early Childhood consultancy company based in Australia.Nicole has co-authored several books and developed a variety of resources for educators. Nicole and her husband live in Lake Macquarie, Australia and love spending time outdoors with their three young children.

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