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Pinocchio Parenting: 21 Outrageous Lies We Tell Our Kidsby Chuck Borsellino
The Truth about the Lies We Tell
SMART PEOPLE BELIEVE HALF OF WHAT THEY HEAR.
REALLY SMART PEOPLE KNOW WHICH HALF TO BELIEVE.
The truth is, everybody lies. Deny it, and you're probably lying. Small lies are called "fibs." Big ones are called "whoppers." Necessary ones are called "white." For politicians, lying has been perfected to an art form. For parents, it's more of a necessity:
"Your mommy and I were just wrestling . . ."
"Your fish went to live with their friends in the ocean."
"If you keep making that face, it's going to stay that way."
"Tell me the truth, and I promise I won't get mad. YOU BROKE WHAT?"
We live in a culture where lying is commonplace — just as fish live in a culture where wet is the norm. According to the book The Day America Told the Truth, 91 percent of Americans surveyed admitted to lying routinely: 86 percent lie to parents, 75 percent lie to friends, 73 percent lie to siblings, and 69 percent lie to spouses ("Oh this old thing — I've had it for ages.") On average we lie about twice a day. That's more often than most people brush their teeth.
We've become a nation of what I call "Pinocchio people." When our backs are against the wall, the lies seem to slide off the tips of our tongues — and our noses grow a little bit longer:
To lie has become as American as apple pie. We lie to protect ourselves; we lie to promote ourselves. We lie when it's convenient; we lie when we're caught.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, each year more than 10 million taxpayers lie to the IRS, 6.6 million job applicants lie on their resumes, 300,000 doctors lie to health insurance providers, and 490,000 lawyers in America admit that they distort the truth in order to aid their clients and win their cases. (By the way, how do you know when a lawyer is lying? Some people say it's when their lips are moving.)
One Sunday a minister concluded his sermon by saying, "Next Sunday I'm going to be speaking on the ninth Commandment: "Thou shalt not lie." In preparation for the lesson, I want each member of the congregation to read the seventeenth chapter of Mark."
The following Sunday the minister said, "Last Sunday I asked each of you to read the seventeenth chapter of Mark in preparation for this morning's service. If you read the seventeenth chapter of Mark, please raise your hand." Nearly every hand in the congregation went up.
Then the minister said, "Those of you who didn't raise your hands can go home. Those who did raise your hands are the ones I want to talk to this morning. There is no seventeenth chapter of Mark."
Dr. Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, concluded that some relationships are virtual magnets for deception. The worst? Parent-teenager relationships. "College students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations," DePaulo discovered. As a father of a college student, I find that revelation rather eye opening.
The proverbial ball, however, isn't only in the teenage court. Unfortunately, most of us parents have taken the "license to lie" to our children to new levels. Not intentionally, mind you; but unintentional distortions have the same consequences — damage that's done to us, as well as to our kids. Damage that ruins our credibility and warps their reality.
We've become "Pinocchio parents" — and our parental noses just keep getting longer:
Living by the Lie
According to psychologist Dr. Chris Thurman, most of us are "living by the lie." In his book The Lies We Believe, Thurman makes the case that we become what we believe. He concludes that while circumstances affect our lives, it is our beliefs about those circumstances that give birth to our behaviors. Steve Chandler, author of Seventeen Lies That Are Holding You Back and the Truth That Will Set You Free, agrees. Our beliefs, not our feelings, are what determine our behaviors, he says. In the same manner our feelings are no more the cause of our problems than the red spots on our faces are the cause of our measles. Feelings are not the source of problems; they are the result.
So if beliefs determine behavior, where do our beliefs come from? Well, in most cases they are suggested by good ol' Mom and Dad. That's right — well-intentioned parents that innocently tell tales to their kids. Parents like you and me.
Of course, our purposes are noble. In most cases they are designed to:
Unfortunately, the little lies, fibs, and clichés we tell our kids today become the beliefs that shape their behaviors tomorrow. Want a few examples? Although the names are changed, each of the following stories is true.
Darrin is a typical seventeen-year-old, five-foot-eleven teenager who would rather play basketball than crack open his chemistry book. He barely passed the eleventh grade. It doesn't matter though; Darrin is counting on playing basketball in the NBA . . . for the Detroit Pistons. Well-intentioned parents wanting to motivate Darrin told him to "dream big," because one day all his dreams would come true.
His belief: "If I dream it, I can do it."
Melody is a seven-year-old girl who is confused about God. Since she can remember, her parents told her there is a God in heaven. She's not so sure anymore. Since she can remember, her parents also told her there's a Santa Claus at the North Pole. But recently, when Melody shared with her friends at school what she wanted from Santa for Christmas, they laughed at her.
Her belief: "I can't tell when Mommy and Daddy are telling the truth — or when they're telling a tale."
Jessica is a bright but insecure eighteen-year-old high-school senior who has worked hard to maintain her A average. Unfortunately, socializing has never come easily for her. Her parents were so pleased with her success in school that they promised her they would give her whatever she wanted for graduation. When she said, "I want breast implants," they said, "OK."
Her belief, reinforced by her parents' quick acceptance of her request:
"My social status will increase with my chest size."
Twenty-two-year-old Eric sits on the sidelines of life waiting for his big break. He was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school but completed only two years of college before dropping out. He has failed to keep a permanent job ever since. Today he spends most of his time sleeping and waiting for success to come knocking — when he wins the lottery. After all, his parents always told him he had "unlimited potential" and that someday he was going to "make it big."
His belief: "It's easier to live on my potential than to pursue a goal and fail."
Conner has his marital back against the wall. He's been married for four years. While he loves Lisa very much, he never buys her a birthday gift or anniversary card. He always has an excuse — just like his father did. Conner's mother was an enabler who used to pardon his dad's practice with the cliché, "That's OK. It's the thought that counts." Conner's wife isn't so . . . understanding.
"Like father, like son — that's the way I was raised.
My mother was OK with it.
Lisa just needs to be more understanding."
I've been a therapist now for over twenty-five years, first as a marriage and family therapist, then as a clinical psychologist. Over the years I've seen each of these situations in therapy. My conclusion: behind each unhealthy behavior is an unhealthy belief, whether conscious or not.
Beliefs determine behavior. That means that the key to changing behavior is to change beliefs — to exchange unhealthy or unrealistic beliefs for healthy, realistic ones. It's really quite simple: change unhealthy beliefs, and you'll change unhealthy behavior.
In each of the previous examples, these kids were good kids — but also misdirected kids. They had good parents, but misguided parents. As a psychologist, I've sat with many troubled teens and puzzled parents, and I can tell you this: Most parents aren't mean — but many are misled. Most kids aren't mindless — but many are misinformed.
Generally speaking, parents are well intentioned. We do our best to create a family environment that will protect our kids when they're young and prepare them for when they're older. We do what we can to provide them with a healthy diet of motivation, encouragement, and support. But sometimes we end up feeding them "ideas" that are helpful in the short run but harmful for their future — motivational snacks that soothe the spirit but spoil the main meal; snacks that not only contaminate their beliefs but discredit the cook.
In most cases we're simply repeating the clichés we heard from our own parents when we were growing up. If it was good for me, it will be good for them, we figure. We don't stop and think, But is it true? We assume the clichés, half-truths, and tales we share will motivate the motionless and bring clarity to the confused. Just what our kids need, right?
The trouble with our tales is that many of them contain a little bit of fact and a little bit of fiction. Subconsciously we hope the fact outweighs the fiction, because believing the tale would make everything seem OK. But it's not OK. Believing a lie doesn't make it the truth. That's the first problem.
The second problem is this: because a lie often contains an element of truth, spotting the lie is difficult. If it's sometimes true, is it always true? Where does the truth end and the lie begin? If only the lie jumped out from the truth and made itself known! Unfortunately, it doesn't. It's like distinguishing salt and sugar. Distinguishing salt from pepper is easy; distinguishing salt from sugar is much more difficult. But just because two things are hard to distinguish doesn't mean they go together.
Finally, we're creatures of habit. We repeat what we hear but fail to examine what we believe. As a result, we perpetuate the problem by passing on the tales we've heard without giving them much thought. After all, the ones who told us these tales were honest, sincere, loving people, right? They were our parents. Surely they wouldn't lie to us . . . would they?
No, not intentionally. But honest, sincere, loving parents are not always right — even if they are honest, sincere, and loving. Honest.
Perhaps you have this book in your hand right now because you're curious. You're thinking to yourself, Am I a Pinocchio parent? What lies, tales, and clichés do I tell my kids? How do these lies hurt them? How do they hurt me?
In the pages that follow, we're going to examine twenty-one of the most common lies, half-truths, tales, and clichés that roll off the tips of our parental tongues. We'll sort out fact from fiction, intention from outcome. You see, passing on lies to our kids because "they sound good" or because "that's what my mom and dad told me" will only make our noses grow longer. One day our children just may notice our Pinocchio noses and yell, "Liar, liar, parents on fire!"
This is a disorder that can be extinguished.
Copyright © 2006 by Chuck Borsellino
You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
"OK, THEN, I WANT TO BE WONDER WOMAN."
Debbie Borsellino, age seven
Business was brisk. The sign in the window said it all: "We'll make you whoever you want to be." Outside, the line was long; inside, the options were limitless: supermodel, Supreme Court justice, or Sleeping Beauty. The process was painless: make your selection, pay your fee, and live the dream. Excitement filled the air as lives were converted from plumber to president, from window washer to Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, the transformations were temporary. The sign over the door read Rick's Halloween Costumes. The fine print on the receipt read "All costumes must be returned by Tuesday."
When I was growing up, Halloween was an opportunity to suspend the realities of life and become anybody I wanted to be . . . at least for one night. It was about more than trading costumes for candy; it was about trading fact for fantasy. Even if it only lasted a day, it was unforgettable!
You don't have to be a Harvard-trained psychologist to realize that costume choices say a lot about a person's dreams and desires. When I was eight, I was a black bear. At nine I was one of the Beatles. By eleven I was a pirate, fully equipped with eye patch, hand hook, sword, pistol, and Mace (just in case). That was the year my parents took note of my gradual decline from black bear to Blackbeard. That was also the year they began to pray for me — I'm talking on your knees, hands clasped, eyes closed, "We need a miracle" kind of prayer. Fasting was soon to follow!
Not long after that, Halloween changed. Halloween was "for kids," and dressing up was for the innocent or the immature. Nevertheless, one Halloween message survived long after the costumes were tucked away in the hallway closet: "You can be anything you want to be." All I had to do was dream it and then become it.
OK, then, I want to be Brad Pitt!
That's when I noticed that noses began to grow.
Jennifer's parents didn't mean for it to happen, but their noses were growing too. Jennifer was barely out of diapers when she was told to dream beyond her limits. Not just to do something significant with her life . . . but something supernatural. Her well-intentioned parents told her that she was destined for distinction. They said she could be anything she wanted to be, and Jennifer believed them. That's when five-year-old Jennifer surveyed the landscape of possibilities and made a decision. While watching a football game one Sunday afternoon with her dad, Jennifer decided to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Why not?
Throughout her early years Jennifer's parents enrolled her in jazz and gymnastics classes, followed by two years of dance classes. She was told that she had "potential," but on the floor there was little evidence. In the seventh grade Jennifer began sixteen months of cheerleading lessons at Champion Cheer. Then it was time to fulfill her destiny and begin her march to Cowboys Stadium by first becoming a high-school cheerleader.
Easier said than done.
Jennifer was dismissed during the first round of competition in the ninth grade. Her lessons continued. She made it to the second round in the tenth grade, when the judges said, "Try again next year." Disappointed but still dreaming, she made her way back to cheer school.
Finally, it was time to shine or get off the stage. Jennifer tried out one more time in the eleventh grade. Unfortunately, the results were the same. Apparently, her five-foot-eight, 134-pound frame was her enemy — not her ally. Jennifer's ankles couldn't handle the impact of landing her round-off back handsprings. Braces increased her support, ice decreased her swelling . . . but nothing provided a solution. Her heart was broken, her dream was shattered, and her belief in the "dream it and do it" theory was crushed.
Getting Wise to the Lies
During his nationally televised presidential nomination speech in 1996, Bob Dole stated that 74 percent of all Americans believe that with hard work, "you can be anything you want to be." He said it; we believe it. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the facts. Let's check the fine print:
It's a belief that's fashionable, but not factual. Whether we like it or not, birds don't swim, fish don't fly, and basketball superstars don't make baseball players, even when their name is Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan had a lifelong desire to play major-league baseball. With his basketball achievements behind him, his baseball aspirations before him, and his athletic abilities within him, he stepped into the batter's box — and found out during the next two agonizing years that he couldn't hit a curve ball. The Chicago Bulls were delighted; Michael gave up baseball, returned to basketball, and led them to another NBA World Championship.
Someone like Marcus Buckingham could have saved him a lot of trouble. In his best-selling book Now, Discover Your Strengths, Buckingham challenges the notion that anyone can learn to be anything he or she wants to be. He asserts that one of the most significant variables that propels a person from average to awesome is neither skill nor knowledge, but talent. Skill and knowledge can be developed, but talent is unique, enduring, and resistant to change. According to Buckingham, teaching kids that they can be anything they want to be minimizes their individuality and suggests that each child is merely a blank sheet of paper. One page just like the other 499 in the pack of 500. A piece of copy paper for the printer rather than an individually cut diamond for the jeweler.
Arthur Miller puts it this way in his book Why You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be: education may help develop your mind, the church may help define your calling, motivation may help drive your dream, and the workplace may help direct your skills; but ultimately, success is based more on your unique abilities than your personal desires. After all, if anybody can be anything, then the only difference between a nurse and a neurosurgeon is personal choice (and their paychecks).
Recently I had the opportunity to sit with a highly skilled cardiologist. Not in an operating room, but in a television studio. Not between surgeries, but between stories. Max Lucado is an author who can touch the human heart with a word better than a heart surgeon can with a scalpel. He's a publishing phenomenon with more than forty million books in print. He can make a story come to life better than Broadway. Maybe that's why Reader's Digest declared him "Best Preacher in America." For fifteen years I knew Max from a distance, as I devoured most of his manuscripts. During the past five years I've gotten to know the person behind the pen, as I've interviewed him several times in the studio. The first fifteen years were like hamburger; the last five have been like filet.
The focus of our recent interview was his book called Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot. In it Max comes to the same conclusion others have: you simply cannot be anything you want to be. That you can is a lie that trickles into many a preacher's teaching. But as Max points out, God created each person to be "you-nique." To one he gave an eye for organization, to another an ear for music, and to another a mind that understands quantum physics. Would Beethoven have made a better chemist than composer? Could you imagine Picasso as an accomplished accountant? The numbers just wouldn't have lined up — literally! Lucado asks, "Can an acorn become a rose, a whale fly like a bird, or lead become gold?"
The Bible asks a similar question: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?" (Jeremiah 13:23).
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
Believing a lie is the first step toward living it. Remember, our behaviors are driven by our beliefs. The fact is, following this particular lie will lead our kids down the path to personal disappointment, causing them to question both the message and the messenger. We want to motivate our kids to dream big and reach for their goals, but this tale goes over the line.
You may not be able to be anything you want to be in life, but you can do the most you can with what you have and do it in a way nobody has ever seen before.
My son isn't a superstar; my daughter isn't a supermodel . . . and I'm no closer to being Brad Pitt. For years my sister wanted to be Wonder Woman, but the tights never fit. Clearly, we can't be anything we want to be in life, despite what many well-intentioned people say. It's time to call this concept a fable, not a fact.
I'm not suggesting that we stop encouraging our children to have big dreams, but let's teach them to dream with their eyes open and their feet on the ground, rather than with their eyes closed and their fingers crossed behind their backs. Let's teach them how to develop the gifts and talents God has given them instead of trying to become something or someone they were never intended to be.
My dad was a welder. He worked at Proctor and Gamble as a welder for most of his life. He was probably the smartest guy I have ever known . . . and he didn't make it past the ninth grade. Times were different when my dad grew up. Destinies were determined by World War I, the Depression, and World War II. Putting food on the table and clothes on our backs was more important to him than academic achievement or self-actualization.
My parent's grew up to obligations; I grew up to options.
I don't remember my parents telling me, "You can be anything you want to be," but I knew kids whose parents did. Instead, my parents told me that God had a dream for my life and that if I lived for him, he'd fulfill that dream. So while my high-school grades were less than stellar, I discovered they were good enough to pry open the door to college. A bachelor's degree led to a master's degree, a master's degree led to a doctoral degree, and that doctoral degree led to another. (The truth is, I'm not that bright; but I did figure out that going to school was a great way to avoid work!)
Today I find myself living the dream I would have never dared to ask for. On many mornings I pinch myself on the way to the television studio. I didn't get here by living my life believing I could be anything I wanted to be. Instead, I got here by living my life for the One who said, "I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).
I offered God kindling; he made a castle and gave me the keys.
As parents we all want the best for our kids. We want them to experience success in life . . . to "live the dream." To this end let me offer a few suggestions:
When you tell your kids the truth about who they are and what they can become, you're not limiting them. On the contrary, you're teaching them that with God's help, their destination can be better than they ever dreamed — it's just not likely to include becoming a goldfish. Sorry, Josh!
Oh yeah, remember Jennifer and her dream to cheer? Her parents finally concluded that goals, gifts, and God are what make dreams happen. Jennifer had the goal but not the gift. Maybe God was pointing her in another direction. They encouraged Jennifer to ask God for a new dream — one that utilized the gifts he had given her.
As a result, as one door closed, another door opened. Just like cheering, this door led to the football field — but as a member of the marching band. Jennifer had been playing the clarinet since she was fourteen. Her talent was unmistakable; her gift was unquestionable. Both made her position with the band undeniable.
It was her God-given gift, not just her goal, that took Jennifer from the sidelines to centerfield.
The musical talent that Jennifer applied to the marching band marched her to college and beyond. She received a music scholarship to attend Texas Christian University. She is currently a member of the Saint Louis Philharmonic.
Copyright © 2006 by Chuck Borsellino
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