Practicing Emotional Honesty with Children

Adults talk a big game to kids about how important honesty is.  Most often what’s conveyed in these conversations is that it’s bad to lie.  This is a great starting place when teaching honesty to kids, but there is another aspect to honesty that is much less talked about and not often practiced.  Emotional honesty is the practice of telling people how you feel, and it’s especially important in moments where there is social pressure to hide it.  

Sharing our feelings is tricky.  Many times we don’t share our feelings because we feel ashamed or embarrassed, or we fear hurting the other person’s feelings by sharing ours.  How and when to be emotionally honest can get really muddied and a lot of the time it is socially easier to stay silent and maintain a surface level pleasantness.  One of the unintended consequences when we do this with children is that we can obscure responsibility for feelings and actions, which means we miss the chance to notice where we each have power, and practice accountability for choices we make.  

For example - At school, a kindergarten class is doing an art project that requires cutting out pieces of paper.  One of the kids is waving and snapping the scissors at his classmates for fun. The teacher leans down and says in a soft, sweet voice, “Joey, we aren’t playing with the scissors, we are only using them to cut the paper.”  

Who is the ‘WE’ in this sentence?  No one else was playing with the scissors.  A more emotionally honest way to phrase this is, “I see YOU are playing with your scissors.  That makes ME feel scared that someone is going to get cut.”  By separating the WE, both the teacher and the student are more accountable for their actions and feelings.  The teacher directly stated the action that she observed this particular student doing, and they named their feelings, which were absent in the original statement.

It’s a very difficult pattern to break.  I recently adopted a puppy and he’s teething so he bites everything, including me, constantly.  The other day I was petting him and he was biting me and I heard myself say sweetly, “We’re not biting.”  Who is this ‘WE’? Only one of us was biting!

Two Common Drivers of Emotional Dishonesty:

  1. Not wanting to hurt other people’s feelings

  2. Fear of being open with our feelings (vulnerability)

It makes sense to not want to hurt other people’s feelings, I know I don’t want to!  But when we aren’t being truthful about our emotional experience because we are afraid of how it will be received, we are doing children a disservice.  

The message we send to kids when we tiptoe around like this is that we don’t think they can manage their emotions.  In doing this we are depriving them of the opportunity to practice hearing directly the impact their actions are making on others, and being empowered and accountable to make a choice.  Ironically, this lack of practice can lead to trouble with emotional management.

So, why do we fear sharing our feelings with our sweet, adoring children?  The truth is, being an adult is harder than it looks. Acknowledging this goes against the idea that adults have it together, know what their doing and how to navigate the world.  To be open with our feelings is to be vulnerable - which is the opposite of the big, strong, smart adult we are trying to be for our kids.

What we miss when we hide our feelings from kids is the opportunity for them to see us as real people.  We dehumanize ourselves by hiding behind the mask of all knowing, got-my-stuff-together adult. Quite often I find myself doing this in moments where I’m using power over kids to get them to do what I want.  Here’s why that’s a problem:

Emotional dishonesty perpetuates power struggles.

As much as we may like to stay cool, level headed and calm, kids push buttons, and sometimes we show our feelings in ways that we don’t want to.  We yell, we threaten, we use punishments, we overreact because we were overwhelmed. And more often than not, we aren’t accountable to young people about our actions.  We hide behind the power of being adult and don’t take responsibilities for our feelings.  

This might sound like “Stop running around in this store!  Do you want a timeout?!” In this quick little moment, the parent has named the behavior of the child, and conflated a possible punishment as a choice that the child could make.  Notice again how the emotional experience of the adult is masked. Though it is most likely conveyed by tone, the adult never says what they are feeling. By removing an honest statement of their feelings, the parent has also released themselves of responsibility for their actions (threatening and punishment).  No, the child does not want a time out. Nor does the child think that they really have a choice, it’s a threat, it’s just veiled.

An emotionally honest redo might sound like, “You’re running around in the store.  I’m worried that you are going to knock someone over or break something. Will you pick another way to get your energy out that is safer for this space?”  In this new communication the parents has: named the behavior of the child, stated their feeling about it (worried), and made a request which creates accountability for the child to make a choice.  

Emotional Honesty: The BIG Picture

Emotional honesty is so important when working with kids because it helps create a connection with them, it shows them that we’re people too, not just Mom or Dad or Teacher.  But if we look beyond the parent/child relationship we see another why reason why emotional honesty is key.

As they get older, the stakes get higher.  Kids become teens and then adults, and the challenges they face become harder and more nuanced.  Sooner or later kids will find themselves in a situation where someone is being mistreated, and they know it.  It’s going to be vulnerable to speak up and they are going to need courage to do it. Ultimately, this is what emotional honesty is - a practice in courage.  It’s saying, “Hey, I’m putting myself out here to say that I feel _____ about what you’re doing , and I trust that you can hear me and be accountable.”

What’s at stake when we are emotionally dishonest with kids, besides our relationships, is that we may unintentionally be raising the next generation of bystanders.  Children who have been conditioned to value politeness over truth. And in today’s world of increasing discrimination and violence, we desperately need young people who can be honest with themselves and hold us all accountable to create a more just society.  

Ben HowortComment