Living with Children,  Parenting,  What the kids say

Radical Honesty

Radical honesty. Ever heard of it? Me neither until I found this fascinating drama on Netflix, Lie to Me. Tim Roth is the lead guy. He plays an entrepreneurial psychologist whose firm is hired by various entities to determine who and possibly why someone is lying.  Roth’s character, Dr. Lightman, believes that if you are human, you lie. He has learned how to recognize and interpret microexpressions- tiny movements your face and body make which tell the truth even when your words do not.  There’s an awesome cast and each episode tops the other and actually makes me sit still for close to 45 minutes at a time. Not an easy task.

So the cute, curly brown headed assistant is the one who has vowed to practice radical honesty. It is different from plain ole honesty in that he doesn’t pussy foot around topics deemed sensitive.  He doesn’t labor over his words in order to keep other’s self esteem in tact or a paycheck coming in. He doesn’t mince words when asked a direct question. It’s amusing and liberating to watch. Sure, he steps on toes, makes people gasp or recoil in surprise, but he also makes people smile. Radical honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. It got me wondering…What would our world look like if all adults practiced radical honesty? How would our relationships change? How much better off would our emotional state be if we could say what we think, express how we feel, and allow the same of others without fear of retribution or loss? Or are some things really better left unsaid?

Well, I happen to have two radical honesty practitioners in my house and I have worked with, babysat, and interacted with hundreds of others throughout my life, but I never had a name for what they do so well until now. Generally speaking, this group of individuals is pretty darn happy. Maybe they are onto something.  Children, up to a certain age, are ruled by their feelings.  They feel like doing something, they do it. They feel like saying something, they say it. How much relief would you have if you could just say what’s on your mind?  If someone asked you how you felt about a given situation and they truly meant, “Give it to me. I want to hear how you feel.”  Wow. Think about the discussions that could open up. Think of all the pent up feelings, happy and sad, relieved. Think about how much more we would understand and appreciate each other or, on the contrary, stop wasting our time trying to get others to appreciate us. Think about how your work place, schools, and government would change. It begs the question, why do we condone a social system that dampens our ability to truly speak our mind; one that seems more concerned about appearances than real honesty? And why do we have laws that actually work against our feelings? Oprah Winfrey got sued for 12 million dollars for saying she wouldn’t eat another burger, people! Yeah, yeah, I get the slander thing and defamation of character, which aim to keep mean spirited and ill intended people in check, but she was stating her feelings after learning about the deplorable conditions of the mass meat industry. Good grief.

In our home, my little radical honesty practitioners keep it real. The oldest, a sensitive, intuitive kid is more aware of the social dos and don’ts now that’s he’s 9. Baby girl, age 4, not so much. Here’s an example of her radical honesty at work. We have a new kitten. He’s awesome. We all love him very much. He is entertaining, super cute and snuggly, but he’s also a little rough. He’s drawn blood…on all four of us.  Baby girl was playing with him the other day and he grabbed a hold of her arm. He was biting and jumping, being rambunctious like boy kitties are and he hurt her, but mostly, he made her mad and she started telling him off. I don’t like you Zen. You are a dumb, dumb, cat. You are a chicken, idiot, stupid. You are not cute. You are not fun and you can’t live with us anymore. I’m going to put you outside and you can’t come back in, ever. This went on for a few minutes as she cried in my lap while I stroked her hair and listened. She’s done this before, a few times actually. To her brother, to a much bigger neighbor kid who knocked her down on the trampoline, and to me and her Dad. When she gets going, we don’t interfere. We just let her get it out. It’s like an emotional burp. The words release built up pressure and makes her feel a whole lot better. Now, if you aren’t accustomed to this or if you think kids should not spout out “bad” words when they are angry or upset or confused is wrong, than you shouldn’t visit our home or invite us over. If you remove yourself from an event we show up to, I’ll shoot you a “gotcha glance” and know you don’t want the “bad” influence. But before you blackball us, you should know that after a few minutes, sometimes longer depending on the offender and offense, she is fine and ready to put the incident behind her and have fun again. She may even apologize for saying “those words” without any encouragement from me and explain to the offender why she got upset. How’s that for problem solving?  I am glad she doesn’t know cuss words.

I know kids embarrass us parents or make us uncomfortable with the things they say or don’t say. They aren’t good at maneuvering all the social codes we’ve put into place. A code that is full of tiptoeing, putting on airs and happy faces, white lies, and nonverbal cues. It’s confusing enough to most adults so you can understand how wacky it makes a kid feel and they shouldn’t be expected to bear the pressure of it all. As parents, we should give them a safe place to express their feelings, to be open and honest without fear of rejection or punishment.  If my kids are unhappy or frustrated, scared or concerned, I feel compelled to listen first then guide. And if they need to vent by stringing a list of words and random thoughts together in a Clark Griswold Christmas bonus breakdown fashion, then so be it. Next time I’ll be sure to have the video camera ready.  In the meantime, I’ll make a pact with you, my momma friends. If your kids say something to me or my kids that might embarrass or make you uncomfortable, or if they fail to say thank you or please or excuse me, don’t sweat it. I understand. I believe that they’ll find their way and eventually learn to speak our language, but a part of me kinda hopes they don’t.


  • alina

    I love your thoughts and your absolute, deeply-rooted and blossoming respect for your children. Thank you for the reminded that our social conventions can be destructive.

    For us, the biggest challenge to radical honesty is violent and cruel behavior. Being upset or frustrated doesn’t give you the right (or the excuse) to hurt someone else. When Micah gets angry at Max, she wants to hit him. If she hits him, he hits her back. He is 8 and she is 3. Such scenes have ended badly (with bruises and blood) for the littlest one. How do you encourage expressing feelings without making a rule about injuring others? Or is this a principle? I’m always learning….

  • modmomatoz

    Hi alina! Thanks for your kind, kind words. As far as phsycial behaviors go, I absolutely believe there should be limits. All kids are born as honest, physical creatures, but as much as I encourage them to be honest and open with their feelings, I also help them recognize and respect the feelings of others–which means respecting personal space. Mine wrestle and they have phsyically lashed out at each other– usually it’s the younger one against the bigger one and usually it’s because her words weren’t being “heard” and she got terribly frustrated–When tempers calm, I ask them if they’d like to explain themselves to each other so they can both be heard. It’s not always a perfect system but has kept the bruises and blood to a minimum!

  • Kristan Shimpi

    Love, love, love this post (and Lie to Me 🙂
    I often find myself wanting children…sometimes mine…to have a filter with their words. A little spin on just letting it come out, especially when in public when thoughts might hurt another’s feelings (we are fine unfiltered at our house :-)….we talk about “thinking things” vs “saying things.” So if you are wondering why the person next to us on the airplane to Disney is too fat to fit in the seat…..thinking thing. Please blog more in 2012. I love your writing style and topics!! PS – we will be back at Lake Norman April 7-10th!

  • mudpiemama

    we respect verbal “emotional throw up” also in our family when there are big feelings or an incident. similar to what Kristan wrote we try to encourage them to differentiate saying anything they want because they are so upset/hurt/annoyed/happy or just making a random observation like “wow that man has a huge belly” but it’s not always easy to separate the two..We also set limits on physical behaviour – it’s OK to be mad, it’s not ok to HIT the dog…You can punch this pillow or smash the playdough…Great show the Lie to Me- very clever!
    Great post!!

  • modmomatoz

    Great point Kristan! Glad you brought that up. I think filters are vital and I like how you distinguish between thinking things and saying things. We do the same here. Not everything that goes through your mind needs to be verbalized, but I want them to have that safe space at home, mostly when they need to express their feelings. And I guess too, I’ve heard so often things like, “You can’t say that.” “You don’t feel that way.” “Apologize now!” and it all seems so forced and contrary to truly teaching in a loving, accepting way. If we don’t help our children work through their authentic emotions then how are they going to be able to appreciate and respect others emotions? I don’t want them to learn at an early age that stuffing your feelings is just what you do. It does absolutely make sense to also teach (and model) filtering thoughts though.

    Thank you Sally-Jane and mudpiemama for reading and your comments. Much appreciated!

  • Darleen

    I think the filtering will come when she meets others outside the family who do not like what she has to say. And inevitably she will. She may also run across someone who will spout back to her words she does not appreciate.

    But having a safe place at home to really vent seems like sane emotional smarts to me. I’d sprinkle in a few new emotional vocabulary to help her identify those feelings with words. After a bout of frustration and she’s had time to cool off you could say, “wow, you sure seemed frustrated”, or “mad”, or “angry”, whatever the case may be. This will help her know what she is experiencing and may help her use these words herself.

  • Beverley

    I’m at that stage of life where radical honesty starts creeping in again – as we get older. I think we realise that time living this life has a end point and it is silly wasting time mincing words. Or that we recognise that worrying what the other person thinks doesn’t really matter that much in the grander scheme of things. Or sometimes we just forget to care and say what we think without thinking about anyone but ourselves first. Truth is, I want to share the REAL me, not the one you want to see or hear or be with.
    Sometimes though, it’s not sensible of productive to be as honest as I want to be. Sometimes it is simply better to stay quiet, not say anything at all. Just ‘be’, without any ‘doing’. In a way, that’s honest too.

  • modmomatoz

    Welcome Darleen and Beverley! Thanks for reading and commenting. My youngest has definitely felt the reactions to her words–from her brother, from neighbors and also from her own friends, so she’s learning alongside the rest of them! And we do talk about her feelings and name her emotions. As a matter of fact that’s what an upcoming post will be about so stay tuned 🙂 Would love to hear more of your thoughts and experiences on that topic.

    And Beverley, you are so right about getting older. There’s so much more wisdom and internal desire to be authentic. Although there’s something a professor I had in college said that has stayed with me–“No one can MAKE you feel a certain way, it’s merely your reaction to what they have said.” Now, people can push buttons, no doubt, or may realize what topics are sensitive, but you ultimately are in control of how your react. So I guess, I want my children to be as authentic with their feelings as possible and allow the same of others.

  • curiositycat

    Totally loving your blog! My radically honest four-year-old goes up to people at random and tells them things about themselves: “You’re fat. Look at how big your belly is.” And “You’re getting old. Your hands are wrinkly and your neck looks funny.” “Something is wrong with your legs. Why can’t you walk? That’s a funny chair you’re sitting in. It has wheels.” And so on. Terribly embarrassing for the adults around him, you’d think, but mostly people laugh and nod–yup, he’s right. And stating it without embarrassment is probably the most refreshing thing they’ve heard in a long time. Still, it’s a bit hard to take when I’m the recipient. Like the time he told me recently that my hands look old and I’m getting old and soon will die and he’ll have to get a new mommy. Ouch. :p

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