The girls and I have a series of #1 Rules. The one I cite most often is “The number 1 rule of [blank] is to always do #2 first”. I use it with tailgating, soccer, horse-shows, or generally any long road-trip. We have other #1 Rules like “DBD” — Don’t Be Dumb, or “Be like the Mace” or “Always make your bed in the morning” (h/t to Admiral McRaven).
But without doubt my number 1 #1 Rule with the girls has always been “Always tell me the truth, and I promise I won’t be mad”. I’ve been drilling it in since they entered the second phase of childhood, which I am dubbing the Foundations stage. It sets the tone for all of our interactions and has created a culture of honesty within the walls of our home.
From ages 2–3 until about 6, you are in a process of building a strong life-foundation with your kids. It’s that stage when they are learning to talk and think and reason. They are exploring that basic trust that you asked of them when they were in the Patience phase. There’s not really much about life you can teach them in these years. They are so fascinated with the world and the idea of exploring it, that they are already getting hit with a fire hose of stimuli on a continuous basis. Nothing you say really gets through. Certainly punishments never do. And to a lesser extent, positive reinforcement is largely ignored in exchange for whatever pleasure they got on their own. Your best shot here is to work on a few broad themes that will only have benefit later in life. That’s why I call it a Foundation. They don’t really have the attention span to actually be taught any lessons, so you subconsciously reinforce themes that hopefully form the basis for who they are as persons as they grow older.
I’ve been pretty good over the years of perpetuating the themes that I think work best…
Always tell me the truth
Work hard and put in 100% effort in whatever you do
Learn, read as much as you can
Telling the truth, even when uncomfortable or painful, has made the most difference in our relationship. I know they have told me things that were really difficult to share with a parent, and true to form, I am pretty sure that I have not freaked out once. I even try to remind them of this fact when they are skittish about letting something out. “Have I ever yelled at you or punished you when you told me the truth?”… “No, dad”… “Same thing now, just talk to me.” I must have said the expression “Just talk to me” at least a thousand times. In their defense, even I am sick of it. 🙂
The truth between the girls and I has been the foundation of pretty much everything that has evolved as they grow up. I am honest with them, and I ask them to be honest with me. I admit it is hard, and the message has to be 100% consistent, even when others are pushing them in opposing directions. But I believe that it is critical to keep building a culture of trust and closeness. The staying calm part is key. But in the big scheme of things, I have always felt that a long term investment in their trust and honesty, is much more important than a punishment or anger in the short term. People always compliment on how the girls have turned out and how they are maturing, I always think of the Foundation as the key. That’s where it all started.