It’s time to come clean about your ‘story’

Smart love - March 2005


The Piepers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D.


It’s time to come clean about your ‘story’ Q: My 5-year-old son was afraid of the water when he was 2½. We took him to a swim class and the instructor told him that once he learned to swim by himself really well, Willy, the whale in the movie “Free Willy,” would come and swim with him.

I don’t know what got into us, but we went along with this story and continued to promise that Willy would join him when he learned to swim.

Now, of course, our lie has caught up with us. My son can swim and asks us every day when Willy is coming.

So our question is, “Now what?” Do we admit the lie and disappoint him? Do we continue to perpetuate this myth, or do we make up something like, “Willy actually was let loose and no one knows where he is now”?

If we do tell him we lied, how do we explain why we lied, and how will he understand when we get after him for lying?

Please don’t tell us we shouldn’t have gotten ourselves into this—we know that now. The question is, how do we get out of it? T.O., Chicago

A: We think the best thing is to end the subterfuge and tell your son that you made a mistake in going along with the swim teacher’s story about Willy. Explain that you were trying to help him to get past his fear of water, but that you can see now that promising him something that couldn’t happen was not really fair.

Perhaps you might see if you can find a stuffed animal that looks like Willy and tell your son that you know he was expecting the real thing, but since you can’t deliver on that promise, you hope he will accept the toy Willy as part of your apology.

If you try to perpetuate the made-up story in any form, your son will eventually become mature enough to understand the truth. At that point he will feel even worse because more time will have passed and more “stories” will have been told to him.

Better to get this behind you and move on.

Can I use Smart Love to help my special needs child? Q: Do Smart Love techniques work with kids with special needs, such as autism? T.V.M., Sherman Oaks, Calif.

A: Actually, we have found that the Smart Love approach is effective and growth-promoting for children of any age, including those with special needs and problems. Because the way children are treated becomes the model for how they treat themselves and others, all children benefit from a steady caring that meets their developmental needs. They also benefit when their behavior is managed in a friendly but firm way without attaching unpleasantness in the form of disciplinary measures such as timeouts or consequences.

It is often said that children with autism are “relationship blind,” but in our clinical work, we have seen children who suffer from autism respond to positive, sensitive, non-intrusive care that builds on the child’s particular interests or expressed motives.

Many autistic children can be helped to realize that relationships can be a source of comfort and joy. Once that developmental milestone is reached, these children often begin to make significant headway.

Professional help may be required to jump-start an autistic child’s inborn wish for relationship pleasure and to help parents learn the most effective ways to relate to their child.

How can I help my daughter shed the excess pounds? Q: My husband and I read your column every month and really find it helpful. We are hoping you can help us with a problem in our own family.

Our 9-year-old daughter is quite overweight. I know this is unhealthy for her, and I want to help her shed the excess pounds. I have had her to the pediatrician, who says there is absolutely no physical reason for her to be overweight and that the problem is emotional.

I also have to admit that my husband and I are each carrying an extra 30 pounds or so, so I am sure this has something to do with our daughter’s problem. We have both tried lots of diets without much success. Suggestions? W.P., Oak Park

A: Most likely, you are correct in thinking that a major cause of your daughter’s struggles with her weight is her unconscious desire to look like her parents.

On the bright side, perhaps your wish to help your daughter become healthier will motivate your husband and yourself to lose pounds as well.

We suggest that you make this a real family project. Choose and plan healthy meals, take family walks or bike rides for exercise, have a daily weigh-in and, generally, show your daughter that you are all in this together. It will be much easier for your daughter to change her eating habits if she doesn’t feel she is the only one who is being asked to make sacrifices.

Most important, everyone must realize that some backsliding is both inevitable and also a sign of progress. If you, your husband or your daughter temporarily go off the diet and exercise plan, that does not mean that the task is too difficult or that the backslider is unable to succeed. We define progress in a self-improvement program as “more success than failure over time.”

If you use moments of backsliding as occasions to identify troublesome temptations, to support each other and to renew your determination, there is every reason to think your whole family can succeed in reaching a healthy weight.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of  Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline That Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.

Here’s your chance to get some answers to your pressing parenting questions. If you’re trying to figure out how to handle some aspect of your child’s behavior, send your question to Chicago Parent Q&A, 141 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; or e-mail it to [email protected] The Piepers will respond to three questions per month. Sorry–they are unable to respond to questions that they do not answer for publication. For more answers to questions from readers since January 2000, visit our Web site, For a more complete understanding of the Piepers’ philosophy and psychology, read their book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline That Will Make You A Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person.


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