Category Archives: Personal Reflections

The End of Mental Illness, Part I

Irrigation Sunrise

For years I’ve planned to write a scintillating review of the words and phrases I now, as a wise and mature adult, refuse to use. The “c-word” (expelled in 1976) and “r-word,” (out forever in 1980), and “n-word” (never used) are notable, but they’re old and tired targets that most self-respecting people in the 21th century have also banished.

BTW, I got rid of tireless in 1988 (who doesn’t get tired, especially after the birth of a child, an all-nighter, or a long day’s work?). On a related note, I got rid of countless in the early 1980s, when, while studying statistics, it became obvious to me that everything was countable, unless you got too tired or too lazy to do the counting. But, even then it didn’t make much sense to just stop counting or to lose track and suddenly declare something countless. More than anything else, the word countless struck me as lazy. I would go with the lazy explanation for countless were it not for the fact that I also eliminated lazy from my vocabulary about 15 years ago when I read about Alfred Adler’s description of people who are lazy as not lazy, but instead people whose goals are beyond their reach and consequently, they experience discouragement (and not laziness).

More recently, I’ve grown weary of “the new brain-science” (how can it be that the media continues to refer to science from the 1990s as perpetually “new” but somehow the pleats in my pants have become so “old-fashioned” that I can no longer wear them in public?). On a related note, neurocounseling and neuropsychotherapy would be on my list for potential banishment, but because they’re new terms that people invented (along with polyvagal), purely for marketing purposes, they can’t be banished, because quite conveniently, I refuse to acknowledge their existence.

All this silly ranting about words makes me sound like a crank—even to myself. But as I get older, I find that worries over sounding like a crank are, in fact, more motivating than worrisome. Indeed, I’m embracing my intellectually snooty crankiness as evidence that I’m fully addressing the crisis inherent in Erik Erikson’s seventh psychosocial developmental stage: Generativity vs. Stagnation. Yes, that’s right, instead of stagnating, I’m cranking my generativity up to a level commensurate with my age.

In contrast to all these aforementioned banished or unacknowledged words, most people (who are otherwise reasonably intelligent) continue to use the term mental illness. As a consequence, the words mental illness have now risen to the coveted #1 spot on my billboard of eliminated words.

My preoccupation with avoiding term mental illness isn’t a news flash, as my University of Montana students would happily attest. For well over a decade, I’ve been explaining to students that I don’t use the term mental illness, and warn them, with what little roguish power I can muster, that perhaps when handing in their various papers throughout the semester, they also, at least for the time being and so as to not irritate their paper-grader, ought to follow my lead.

In my social life, whenever mental illness comes up in conversation, I like to cleverly state, “I never use the term mental illness unless I’m using it to explain why I never use the term mental illness.” This repartee typically piques the interest (or ire) of my conversational cohort, usually stimulating a question like, “Why don’t you ever use the term mental illness?”

“Wow. Thanks.” I say. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Three main cornerstones form the foundation for why I’ve made a solemn oath to stop privileging the words mental illness. But first, a tangential example.

This morning, once again, I’m awake at 3:30am, despite my plan to sleep until 7:00am. I know this awakening experience very well; I also know the label for this experience is insomnia, or, more specifically, terminal insomnia, or more casually known as, early morning awakening.

After this particular early morning awakening, I briefly engaged in meditative breathing until my thoughts crowded out the meditation. Having thoughts bubble up and crowd out meditative breathing is probably a common phenomenon, because neurotic thoughts, spiritual thoughts, existential thoughts, and nearly any thoughts at all, are nearly always far more interesting than meditative breathing.

A favorite statement among existentialists is that humans are meaning makers. As with many things existential, the appropriate response is something my teenage clients have modeled for me, “Well, duh.” Channeling my ever-present inner-teen, I want to respond to my inner-existentialist with a pithy retort like, “Yeah. Of course. Humans are meaning makers. Maybe we should talk about something even more obvious, like, we all die.”

What I find fascinating about the existential claim that humans are meaning makers is that existentialists always say it with gravity and amazement, as if being a meaning-maker is a profoundly good thing.

But, like life, meaning-making is not all good, and sometimes, not good at all. As I lay in bed along with my early morning awakening, it’s nearly impossible not to begin wondering about the meaning of the dream that woke me up (there was a broken anatomical bust of Henry David Thoreau in a small ocean-side creek at Arch Cape, Oregon); even more engaging however, is the so-called lived experience of terminal insomnia, and so my middle-of-the-night dream interpretation gets pushed aside for a more pressing question. “What’s the meaning of my regular waking in the middle of the night?” My brain, without consent, calls out this question, in an all-natural and completely unhelpful lived meaning-making experience. The explanations parade through my hippocampus: Could my awakening be purely physiological? Could it be that I missed my daily caffeine curfew by 30 minutes? Perhaps this is the natural consequence. But if so, why would I awaken now, after falling asleep as my head hit the pillow and sleeping for 4½ hours, instead of having a more easily explained experience of initial insomnia.

Of course, the most common explanation for early morning awakening is neurochemically filed in my brain and easily accessible. Without effort, I recall that terminal insomnia is a common symptom of clinical depression. I’ve known that for about 40 years. Now, by 3:45am, the various competing theories have completely crowded out my breathing meditation and will settle for nothing less than my full attention.

Is my terminal insomnia simply a product of the half-life of caffeine, or a full-bladder, or primary insomnia? Or is it something even more malignant, a biological indicator of clinical depression? Do I have a mental disorder? Although that might be the case, after briefly depressing myself with the contemplation of being depressed, I also begin refuting that hypothesis. My memory of taking an online “depression” test emerges, along with my score in the mild-to-moderate depression range. I might have believed the online questionnaire result, had it not been conveniently placed on the website of a pharmaceutical company and had it not culminated in the message, “Your score indicates you may be experiencing clinical depression. Check with your doctor. Lexapro may be right for you?”

Given that I’m absolutely certain that Lexapro isn’t right for me, the pattern analysis and search for deeper meaning breaks down here. I am a meaning-maker. I woke up at 3:30am. Now it’s 4am and I’m still awake. So what? It happens. When it does, I like to get up and write. It’s productive time. My stunning meaning-making conclusion is my usual conclusion: believing that I have a mental disorder is unproductive; in contrast, believing that I’m creatively inspired to write at 3:30am is vastly preferable and consistent with what Henry David Thoreau would want me to do in this moment.

What does all this have to do with eliminating the term mental illness from the human vocabulary?

Mental Illness Lacks a Suitable Professional Definition

Mental illness is a term without a professional or scientific foundation. Even the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t use mental illness in its latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The World Health Organization doesn’t use it either. I pointed out this fun fact while attending a public journalism lecture at the University of Montana. I asked the journalist-speaker why she used “mental illness” when the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization don’t use it. Initially taken aback, she quickly recovered, explaining that she and other journalists were trying to put mental health problems on par with physical health problems. That’s not a bad rationale. Mostly I want mental and physical health parity too, but what I don’t want is an assumption that all mental health problems are physical illnesses and therefore require medical treatments. Besides, whenever people make up (or embrace) non-professional and scientifically unfounded terminology to further their goals, their goals begin to seem more personal and political and less pure. In the end, I don’t think it’s right to make up words to negatively classify a group of fellow humans.

A side note: The American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization are not left-leaning bleeding hearts; they would happily use mental illness if they felt it justified. Back in 2000, the authors of the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual explained their reasoning:

The term “disorder” is used throughout the classification, so as to avoid even greater problems inherent in the use of terms such as “disease” and “illness.” “Disorder” is not an exact term, but it is used here to imply the existence of a clinically recognizable set of symptoms or behavior associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions. Social deviance or conflict alone, without personal dysfunction, should not be included in mental disorder as defined here.

Broadly, my first reason for refusing to use the term mental illness is that it’s not used in the definitive publications that define mental disorders. It’s too broad and consequently, unhelpful. If mental illness isn’t good enough for the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, it’s not good enough for me.

Mental Illness is Too Judgmental

When asked about diverse sexualities, Pope Francis summarized my second reason for not using the term mental illness. He famously responded, “Who am I to judge?” I love this message and believe it’s a good guide for most things in life. Who am I (or anyone) to judge (or label) someone as having a mental illness?

You might answer this question by recognizing that I’m a mental health professional and therefore empowered to judge whether someone has a mental disorder; I’m empowered to apply specific mental disorder labels (after an adequate assessment). Sure, that’s all true. But I also have a duty to be helpful; although the communication of a diagnostic label might be helpful for professional discourse, insurance reimbursement, and scientific research, I don’t see how it’s helpful to categorize a whole group of individuals as “the mentally ill.” Hippocrates founded medical science. His first rule was “Do no harm.” As fun and entertaining as diagnosing other people and myself may be, I’ve come to the conclusion that doing so is often more harmful and limiting than good.

Think about it this way. Would it be any LESS helpful for us to delete the words “the mentally ill” and replace them with “people with mental health issues?” I think not. But you can decide what fits for you.

To the extent that it’s helpful to individual clients or patients, I’m perfectly fine with, after an adequate collaborative assessment process, diagnosing individuals with specific mental disorders. I believe that process, when done well, can help. What I’m against is using a broad-brush to label a large group of fellow humans in a way that can be used for oppression and marginalization. Why not just say that everyone has mental health problems and that some people have bigger and harder to deal with mental health problems. As Carl Jung used to say, “We’re all in the soup together.”

Mental Illness Resists De-stigmatization

Mental illness and its proxies, mental disease and brain disease, are inherently, deeply, and irretrievably stigmatizing. I know several different national and local organizations that are explicitly dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental illness. My problems with this is that the words mental illness are already so saturated with negative meaning that they resist de-stigmatization. The words mental illness instantly and systematically shrink the chance for therapeutic change and positive human transmorgrification.

If you look back in time, you’ll find that mental illness was created by people who typically have a political or personal interest in labeling and placing individuals into a less-than, worse-than, not-as-good-as, category. The terminology of brain disease and brain-disabling conditions are even worse. What I’m wishing for are kinder, gentler, and less stigmatizing words to describe the natural human struggle with psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems. If you’ve got some, please send them my way. I need help in my tireless efforts to let go of my crankiness and embrace hope, especially when I wake up in the middle of the night.

 

Advertisements

My Incredibly Insightful Comments on Self-Disclosure in Therapy from Counseling Today Magazine

Here’s a photo of me talking too much.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now imagine that I finally realize I’m talking too much, and to control myself, I place my hand over my mouth

***************************

Along with 10 other professionals, I was asked to write 300 words on using self-disclosure in counseling. All the comments were published this morning in the Counseling Today magazine.

I liked all the commentaries. You can read them here: https://ct.counseling.org/2019/01/counselor-self-disclosure-encouragement-or-impediment-to-client-growth/

But I was especially happy to see that three of the 11 selected professionals were linked to the University of Montana. Kim Parrow (doc student) and Sidney Shaw (former doc student) both provided their insights for the article. How cool is that?

Speaking of cool, and I know this isn’t appropriate, but I really liked my own commentary. I liked it partly because it sounds pretty smart and partly because I do a nice job of making fun of myself. And so here’s my short comment about self-disclosure in counseling:

My first thought about self-disclosure is that it’s a multidimensional, multipurpose and creative counselor response (or technique) that includes a fascinating dialectic. On one hand, self-disclosure should be intentional. If counselors aren’t aware that they’re using self-disclosure and why they’re using it, then they’re probably just chatting. On the other hand, self-disclosure should be a spontaneous interpersonal act.

Self-disclosure is an act that involves revealing oneself. As Carl Rogers would likely say, if your words aren’t honest and authentic, then your words aren’t therapeutic. From my perspective — which is mostly person-centered — the purest (but not only) purpose of self-disclosure is to deepen interpersonal connection. As multicultural experts have noted, self-disclosure can facilitate trust more effectively than a blank slate, because transparency helps clients know who you are and where you stand. What’s less often discussed is that it’s impossible to not self-disclose; we’re constantly disclosing who we are through our clothing, mannerisms, informed consent form, office accoutrements and questions.

I remember working with a 19-year-old white, cisgender, heterosexual male. He told me he was diagnosed as having reactive attachment disorder. After listening for 15 minutes, I was convinced that there was no possible way he could meet the diagnostic criteria for reactive attachment disorder. First, I used an Adlerian-inspired question/disclosure: “What if it turned out you didn’t really have reactive attachment disorder?”

You might not consider a question as self-disclosure, but every question you ask doesn’t simply inquire, it simultaneously reveals your interests.

Later, I disclosed directly, using immediacy: “As I sit and listen to all your positive relationships, it makes me think you don’t have reactive attachment disorder.” Despite my interpersonally clever use of an educational intervention embedded in a self-disclosure, my client didn’t budge, countering with, “That doesn’t make any sense, because I’m diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.”

At that point, I wanted to use self-disclosure to share with him all the ways in which I was a smarter and better health care professional than whoever had originally misdiagnosed him. Fortunately, I experienced a flash of self-awareness. Instead of using disclosure to enhance my credibility, I spontaneously disclosed, “I’ve been talking way too much. I’m just going to put my hand over my mouth and listen to you for a while.”

As I put my hand over my mouth, my client smiled. The rest of the session was — in both our opinions — a rousing success.

 

Peggy Bit Me

Peggy Ellen (Sommers) Lotz was born on a cool, crisp day in Vancouver, Washington. The high temperature was 45 degrees. I know that because I read it in the Farmer’s Almanac. The date was January 28, 1955. That makes today her birthday. Happy Birthday Peggy!

Peggy is my older sister (but not the oldest; that distinction goes to Gayle, who will get her story later).

According to family legend, Peggy first introduced herself to me by biting my big toe. I was a newborn, my mother was holding me. Apparently, at age 2¾, Peggy didn’t appreciate me stealing all of our mother’s attention. I very much wish this incident had been video-recorded, not just for historical posterity, but also because I know it would go viral on the internet, just like the “Charlie bit me” video. Besides, if I had the video it would also mark the only time in recorded history that Peggy ever did anything mean toward anyone else.

I’ve long since forgiven Peggy for biting me. It was easy because of who she was, is, and always will be.

Throughout my childhood and teen years, Peggy would say terrible things to me like, “I’m busting with pride over you” and “I’m you’re biggest fan.” Seriously. And she meant it. I’ve read about this thing called sibling rivalry; I just never experienced it. There’s a famous psychologist named Alfred Adler who wrote about how children who are encouraged can do nearly anything. Peggy is the most flat-out encouraging person I’ve ever met. She helped me believe in myself. And that biting incident . . . well, knowing Peggy, I probably deserved it.

Peggy is pure of heart. From age 2¾—to whatever age she’s turning today—Peggy has acted toward others with kindness. Everything she does is laced with good intentions. Teach special education children. Check. Get your Master’s degree and become a school counselor. Check. Be a force for defending children from abuse. Check. Be a fantastic mom. Check. Return to the regular classroom and teach another decade because you love teaching and you love children and they love you. Check. Take care of our mother who needs caretaking. Check.

Growing up, our mom always said Peggy would become a social worker because she had empathy for everyone, took care of injured animals, and was naturally the most amiable person in our family, on our block, and maybe on the planet. If you need something, call Peggy.

Peggy is also smart and funny. Like most of us, she’s at her funniest when she’s not even trying. Take, for example, some profound “Peggy sayings.” My favorites are, “Nobody’s gonna pull the wool over my shoulders” and “You just gotta keep your shoulder to the grindstone.”

When you see her next, you might want to ask her if she has a thing about shoulders.

She also loves it when I tell the story of how surprised she was that they didn’t make her get a new driver’s license when she moved to Pullman to go to Washington State University. Be sure to ask about that too.

Peggy, today is your birthday. You being born was a happy day in the world.

I hope you know I’ve forgiven you for the biting thing. I also hope you know how much I admire you for who you are and the kindness you spread in the world. I hope you know that I know, you are a gift to me, our family, and so many more people.

And I hope you know I’m busting with pride over you, because, as you probably already know, nobody’s pulling any wool over my shoulders.

I love you Peggy. Have a fantastic birthday. You deserve it.

Top Blogs for 2018

JSF Dance Party

Reviewing the past is a bit easier than predicting the future; so despite my love predicting what will happen tomorrow, today’s blog is about yesterday.

Last year was rough. Nearly everyone agrees on that, although I suspect that finding consensus on who to blame for last year’s roughness would make fodder for unpleasant argument rather than agreement.

In the midst of all this disagreement, I decided to see which of my blogs garnered the most interest. That’s sort of like picking out blog posts that were agreeable reads.

I recognize that this info might only be of interest to me. Then again, this is a blog and blogs are traditionally about whatever interests the blogger. Sorry about that. There’s no peer review. Apparently I submitted this post to myself and it passed my rigorous editorial review.

First, a look way back to late 2011 when this blog started with what one of my favorite topics: the amazing Mary Cover Jones. https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/11/25/a-black-friday-tribute-to-mary-cover-jones-and-her-evidence-based-cookies/

Back then, in 2011, I had a total of 1,522 blog “hits” with the top blog being a very short “26 Years with Rita” message. https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/12/30/26-years-with-rita/

In 2012, the first full year of JSF blogging, there were 15,486 hits, with the favorite new 1,167 hit post being “Two Sample Mental Status Examination Reports.”

Fast forward to 2018. Overall there were 156,811 hits, with the hottest post–by a landslide with 62,647 hits being. . . drum roll: “Two Sample Mental Status Examination Reports.”  https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/08/10/two-sample-mental-status-examination-reports/

The second most popular post of 2018 was:

The wildly popular 2015 post (with 14, five star likes) “Constructive vs. Social Constructionism: What’s the Difference?” and 11,691 hits. https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2015/12/05/constructivism-vs-social-constructionism-whats-the-difference/

The top three new posts from 2018 were:

#1: “Bad News in Threes” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/08/bad-news-in-threes-kate-spade-anthony-bourdain-and-the-cdc-suicide-report/

#2: “The Diagnostic Clinical Interview” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/02/27/the-diagnostic-clinical-interview-tips-and-strategies/

#3: “New Journal Article” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/03/09/new-journal-article-conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

Okay. That’s enough self-reflection. Soon and next, I’ll be posting my 2018 New Year’s resolution. Here’s to hoping that happens soon.

And for now, before we run out of January. . .

Happy New Year!

 

 

Predicting the Future of Psychotherapy and Counseling

Eta Cow Pi 1979

Ever since my sisters and I experimented with our Ouija board back in the 1960s (and possibly before), I’ve been fascinated with prediction. It seems, in retrospect, I should have been able to predict that, in 1985, I would decide to do a dissertation on personality and prediction.

The results were stunning. My discovery? Human behavior is notoriously difficult to predict. Although, to be honest, because hundreds of previous researchers had already made this remarkable discovery, it’s probably more appropriate to call it a re-discovery.

Slamming into the prediction is difficult reality hasn’t stopped me from loving prediction. Not even close. But that’s predictable too. Most people ignore reality; instead we prefer to fool ourselves into believing our own idiosyncratic magical thoughts and wishes. And so even though I incessantly brag about my ability to predict the future, I secretly recognize the truth; most predictions, similar to my annual March Madness picks, are mostly wrong, most of the time.

But the end of 2018 is near. And you probably know what that means.

It means people become more predictable. That makes this particular moment in time (late December) an unparalleled opportunity to accurately predict the future. On that note, I offer you my late 2018 and early 2019 predictions:

1. Right around December 24, families from around the world will gather together with love in their hearts. Many of these families will simultaneously experience both love and dread, partly because there will be predictable conflict around current politics and past family dynamics. But hey, that’s love.

2. Toward the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the media will be preoccupied with “the best of 2018” and “predictions for 2019.” Will Mueller and Trump meet at a D.C. Starbucks for an amiable chat about whether to trade a witch hunt for a presidential resignation? Will Rudy be one of the top “Baby names” for 2019? Will White Nationalists suddenly discover (or rediscover) that Jesus was a Jewish person who loved diversity? All that and much more is coming your way.

3. And this, according to leading astrologists, “Capricorn rules the governmental structures of society: politics, church, monarchy, big corporations, monetary system, and macroeconomics.” Well. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that the pesky presence of Uranus and Pluto means there will be continued government instability; on the other hand, Jupiter is on it’s way, which signals a potential calming of emotional turbulence, as well as new prospects for romantic love. I should note that every year the astrological forecasts are the same: Romantic love may be in your future.

4. Rita and John SF will publish a short, new article on the future of psychotherapy and counseling. Wait. That already happened. Our fancy new article about the future was just published in the Psychotherapy Bulletin. You should know that, in this article, we don’t say anything about astrology, Ouija boards, or politics. However, we do construct a future scenario of what psychotherapy and counseling will be like in the year 2068!

I know this article isn’t as exciting as predicting romantic love in your future, but if you go to the link below and scroll down to page 7, you can read about the future of psychotherapy in an article with the fancy title: “Recursive and emerging themes in psychotherapy: Past, present, and future.” Here’s the link:

https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018-Psychotherapy-Bulletin-Volume-53-Number-4.pdf

And here’s the official citation: Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2018). Recursive and emerging themes in psychotherapy: Past, present, and future. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(4), 7-12.

One more prediction: March Madness is coming . . . and this year, I’m more certain than ever, my bracket will be perfect.

Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It

Lucy in BedLying is in the news again today, as it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow.

The latest count (by the Washington Post) has Donald Trump at over 5,000 false or misleading statements on only his 601st day as president. This past September 7 was DJT’s new one-day high, at an astounding 125 false or misleading claims.

But today’s blog post isn’t about the president, it’s about parenting. Truth be told (and I’m not lying about this), children tell lies sometimes; lying, among children and teens (and adults), is a natural and normal act. However, even though lying is a normal childhood behavior, you probably don’t like it when your children lie—especially when they lie to you.

Relationships between parents and children are complex and multidimensional. You could probably say the same thing about any relationships that involve love and living together. One particularly complex dimension of parent-child relationships involves how selective children are when they watch, listen, comment, and copy their parents’ behavior.

On the one hand, parents often feel like their children aren’t listening to them (“that darn kid doesn’t listen”). On the other hand and ironically, children’s observational powers seem to be at their peak during those moments when parents engage in less positive behaviors, including the parental exaggeration, fib, or outright lie. Then, and especially then, children’s ears perk up and, no big surprise, they catch you in your lie!

In addition to the irony of your children’s selective attention to your moral and ethical missteps, having a president like Donald Trump makes preaching the virtues of honesty all the more challenging. After all, he’s publicly telling many lies every day, and he’s attained his success, in part, because of his self-professed philosophy of lying, never admitting he’s wrong, and never apologizing. He shapes reality around what he thinks, which I would guess, is exactly the opposite of what parents want to teach their children.

Consider this excerpt from an essay titled “Fathers” by Alice Walker.

I recall a scene when I was only three or so in which my father questioned me about a fruit jar I had accidentally broken.  I felt he knew I had broken it, at the same time I couldn’t be sure.  Apparently, breaking it was, in any event, the wrong thing to have done.  I could say, Yes, I broke the jar, and risk a whipping for breaking something valuable, or No, I did not break it, and perhaps bluff my way through.

I’ve never forgotten my feeling that he really wanted me to tell the truth.  And because he seemed to desire it and the moments during which he waited for my reply seemed quite out of time, so much so I can still feel them, and, as I said, I was only three I confessed.  I broke the jar, I said.  I think he hugged me.  He probably didn’t, but I still feel as if he did, so embraced did I feel by the happy relief I noted on his face and by the fact that he didn’t punish me at all, but seemed, instead, pleased with me.  I think it was at that moment that I resolved to take my chances with the truth, although as the years rolled on I was to break more serious things in his scheme of things than fruit jars (you can find this essay in Alice Walker’s book of essays titled, “Living by the word,” p. 12; see, https://www.amazon.com/Living-Word-Selected-Writings-1973-1987/dp/0156528657/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1541802856&sr=1-2&keywords=alice+walker+essays).

Alice Walker sensed, at a very young age, that her father wanted the truth, she gave it to him, and he provided her with positive reinforcement (and no punishment) in response to her honesty. That’s a powerful sequence, and one way that parents teach children to value honesty.

Just yesterday, Sara Polanchek and I recorded a Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast episode on “Why Kids Lie and What to Do about It.” The podcast isn’t available yet, but it will be soon. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

Because all children lie and lying is a natural part of child development, we encourage parents to “be curious and not furious” about children’s lies. That doesn’t mean you should accept their lies; it does mean you should try to understand your child’s motivations for lying, before reacting (or overreacting). Here are some of the most common reasons why children lie and ideas about how to respond.

  • Young children (typically 2 and under) will lie because they don’t understand the differences between fantasy and reality and/or because they’re experimenting with fantasy and reality. This might involve, “the monster broke my toy” or “that’s my doll!” If you think your young child can’t quite make the distinction between reality (what happened) and fantasy (what the child wishes or thinks might have happened), a little empathy, mutual exploration, and limit-setting might be in order: “Darn. It’s upsetting when toys get broken. How can we make sure the monster doesn’t break any more? And, I hope it doesn’t happen again, because we only have so many toys.”
  • For children and adults, many lies are a product of self-defense or self-protection. As in the Alice Walker essay, children may be scared of or be avoiding negative consequences. One way to help your children through their fears of telling the truth is to do what Alice Walker’s father did: Communicate how much you value honesty, and sometimes, when your child is honest, let them out of the natural consequences.
  • Ego-boosting is another reason why kids (and adult) lie. Most people want to look better than they are or to have more than they have, and that can result in bragging or boasting. One way of dealing with this motivation is to focus on the real and true things that you value about your children. Additionally, it’s important to let children know that you love them—even when they’re imperfect.
  • As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Your children will notice when you lie and when you tell the truth. If you really want to instill values of honesty—that means making a commitment to being honest yourself—at least in front of the children. One powerful way of modeling honesty is to honestly share with your children times when you wanted to lie about something, but chose to tell the truth instead. Children can benefit from understanding (and seeing) that telling the truth isn’t always easy and that it’s natural to feel the temptation to deceive others for protection, gain, or self-promotion.

There are many more motivations for lying that Sara and I discuss on the upcoming podcast. We also discuss some additional ideas for promoting honesty. Here are a few quick points:

  1. Gently inquire with your kids about what’s wrong with lying (or cheating or stealing, etc.).
  2. Keep your ears tuned for signs of your kid taking personal responsibility, having empathy for others, and principles such as trust . . . and celebrate those when you notice them.
  3. Whatever your child says, accept it, note that it’s interesting, then share your perspective.
  4. Avoid preaching.
  5. Avoid extra harsh punishment because it can promote the use of lying out of fear.
  6. Make a practice of being truthful yourself. As a parent, you set the standard.
  7. Don’t play detective. Keep in mind the old saying, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.” Apply natural and unpleasant consequences when there’s available evidence, but don’t set your child up to tell a lie.  Instead, tell your child what you know and let your child expand on it.  Schaefer (1995) uses the following example: If you know your child did poorly on a test at school, don’t ask, “Did you pass your exam?”  Instead, make a statement: “Your teacher called and told us that you failed the test.  We are worried.  We wonder how to be of help?”
  8. Let your children know that if they’re honest about misbehavior you’ll do what you can to be helpful. On the other hand, if they lie about misbehavior, the natural penalty will be double (one consequence for the misbehavior and one consequence for the lie).
  9. Use books and stories to teach moral values.
  10. Let your child know, repeatedly, how much you appreciate honesty and openness. And be prepared for times when you will be disappointed.  When appropriate, share your disappointment rather than your anger.
  11. If, after using the previously mentioned suggestions, the lying persists, family counseling or counseling for your child might be a good idea.

No doubt, lying will continue to be in the news. It appears that there’s not much we can do about that in the short term. However, as a supportive, limit-setting, and positive role model, you can reduce the amount of lying that happens in your own home. And when it comes to building a truth-telling society, promoting honesty in your home is a great place to start.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday to Me

John Prof 2018

It’s political season.

Political season brings lots of things, including relentless television advertisings featuring creepy deep voices saying things that almost might be true, but are mostly unverifiable. One example, among many, accuses a candidate of “Voting against Montana.” Could that be true? It’s impossible to tell because it’s impossible to even know what voting against Montana even means? Obviously, the purpose of that sort of advertising is to mislead and influence.

Right now I’m on a bus from Missoula to Billings. It’s my birthday, which makes it a funny day for a bus ride. I could have stayed in Missoula, but today “he who shall not be named” is speaking there . . . and so I’m happily and anonymously riding this WiFi supplied Jefferson Lines Bus to Billings, where Rita will pick me up for a birthday dinner and poetry reading.

Political season always brings me fantasies of running for office. Today, while walking to the Missoula bus station, the fantasy was of me doing a political television advertisement. I might say something like this:

“Hey, I’m not featuring a creepy deep voice or attacking my opposition. All I want to do is look into this camera and talk directly to you. So let’s talk. Let’s talk about what you want in a Senator or Representative.

I grew up on the rural edge of Vancouver, Washington. My father owned a small business, installing window coverings. He was (and is at 92) the most honest person I’ve ever known. My mother was a traditional homemaker and worked along with my father in the family business. She was (and is) the kindest person I’ve ever known.

I’ve only got about 10 or 15 more years of a healthy active life left. And so, in honor of my parents and their values, I’d like to be a politician who will represent you with honesty and kindness. My parents also embraced the value of hard work. So let’s throw that in. I won’t be spending money on attack ads or misinformation. If you want to know where I stand on something, let’s talk. I’ll work hard to be an honest and kind representative of you and the whole state. In this advertising, all I’m asking is that you look at me, talk to me, compare me to my opponent, and then vote for the person who you think will be the most honest, kind, and hardworking person to represent you and this great state of Montana.”

Enough of the silly fantasies. My point is my birthday wish. I’m wishing today, for my birthday and for my birthday year, for a political takeover by politicians who are honest, kind, and hardworking. That’s all. They don’t have to be rich or powerful. They don’t have to have high IQs. Let’s just concentrate. Let’s just elect the honest and kind candidates and then see what happens.

Happy birthday to me.