Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

Q: My 14-year-old daughter has generally been a trustworthy child. Lately, my husband and I feel that she has been exaggerating when speaking to us. Her statements sometimes seem too extreme, and we find it hard to believe the accuracy of her reporting in certain situations. Her comments don’t usually affect anything of great consequence to our family, but it bothers us greatly to think that we need to continually question the validity of her words. What is the best way for us to approach our daughter about this?

 

A: Parents need to open conversations with their children (especially teenagers) by taking a nonjudgmental stance. If children feel that they are being judged, they are apt to be defensive and not very communicative with their parents. Two opening phrases that are very useful for indirectly procuring information are “I’m just a little confused — maybe you can explain this to me…” or “I’m just curious — I’d like to better understand…”

A parent then needs to explain, using words such as “I don’t feel comfortable when…” rather than being very direct. This is especially true when the topic you are discussing with your daughter is a grey one — she is not lying … but she might be telling the story as seen within her own subjective reality.

Finally, a positive desired outcome should be expressed, such as: “Maybe you can better explain to me what you’re thinking of when you speak in this way.”

In relation to parent/child relationships, this can be an area in which it is more beneficial to give your child the benefit of the doubt. Though we are taught about the great merit of judging “l’chaf zechus,” we are often so consumed with anger and resentment that this “chaf zechus” seems to be more lip service than service of the heart. Yet so often we find that there were mitigating circumstances that caused a situation to unfold as it did, and our given theory of the situation was indeed inaccurate. Our anger and disappointment were unwarranted and we see that not giving the benefit of the doubt only increased mistrust between parent and child.

Sometimes (clearly not in all situations), it is better to believe in one’s child, even if one doubts the total truth of her statements, in order to build a relationship with her. Often, expressing verbal doubt about much of what she says becomes a belittling match. As stated in relation to doubting the sincerity of others, one should follow the dictum “kabdeihu v’chashdeihu — honor a person, but be wary of his actions.” With one’s children, one can verbalize this dilemma as: “I understand your explanation of this situation. It does make sense. However, I see other things happening here that you may not even have been thinking of…” This is preferable to saying: “Do you think I was born yesterday? I know how you’re trying to paint the story, so that I’ll give you the car again.” The second response only creates a power struggle, where both parent and child do not want to be seen as the fool.

Creating a relationship of trust between parent and child allows true chinuch to occur. If there is limited trust, the transmission of our mesorah between parents and children suffers, becoming power struggles laden with strife.

Again, if such encounters are a frequent occurrence, the communication style between parent and child needs to change. If one believes in the ultimate good of people, Hashem will only see good within us.