Q: My husband and I have been having a difficult time lately with our 15-year-old daughter. She’s a little bit of a “sandwich” child — not the oldest or the youngest. Lately, there are times we feel she may be exaggerating, or even twisting stories, to come out looking more innocent than she really is. I don’t want her to think that we don’t believe her or trust her, as she is generally a trustworthy girl, but it’s not helpful that she view her parents are gullible either! I’m starting to think that she actually believes her version of events, so then I really can’t be angry at her. It’s not that she’s pathologically lying; she’s just telling her version of the truth. How should we approach this?
A: Though we are told the great merit of giving another the benefit of the doubt, the actual ability to do so, and actually believe the thought that we are attempting to put in our minds, is far from simple. We are often so consumed with anger and resentment that this judging “l’chaf zechus” seems to be more “lip service” than the service of the heart. Yet, so often we find that there are mitigating circumstances that caused the situation to unfold as it did, and our given theory of the situation was indeed inaccurate. Our anger and disappointment was unwarranted, and in relation to our role as a parent, we see that not giving the benefit of the doubt only increases mistrust between parent and child.
Generally, although clearly not in all situations, it is better to believe in one’s child, even if one doubts the total truth of his statements, in order to build the relationship between you. When we express our doubts about the veracity of what our children are saying, we usually end up belittling them. As stated in relation to doubting other people’s sincerity, a person needs to “kabdeihu v’chashdeihu” — respect the other person but at the same time be wary. In certain circumstances with one’s children, one can even verbalize this dilemma: “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 usually preferable to: “Do you think that I was born yesterday? I know how you’re trying to paint this story, so that I’ll give you the car again.” The second response almost always creates a power struggle, where neither the parent nor the child wants to give in.
The creation of a relationship of trust between parent and child allows true chinuch to occur. If there is limited trust, the transmission of our mesorah from parent to child can barely take place, as the main encounters become those of power struggles and strife. If such encounters are frequent occurrences, the communication between parent and child needs to change.
Sometimes there is indeed a need for gevurah (and words of severity), but even in such circumstances, the words still need to be couched with caring and belief in the child’s continual potential to be successful.
Clearly, when the issue of “whose version of the story is true?” begins to affect other family members, an especially sensitive parental approach is necessary. No child should feel that he or she is always looked at as the dishonest one among siblings. In such circumstance, a non-judgmental discussion between parent and child needs to occur.
Statements such as “I’m a little confused” or “I’m curious — can you help me to understand?” can go a long way toward opening up communications, and expectations, between parent and child.