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Parenting Tips from the 18th Century

July 22, 2013

There’s a Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire film in which one song has the line “I’m George Washington, and I simply can’t tell a lie.” It might be that all-time classic, Holiday Inn.  In fact I think it probably is, because I can’t for the life of me recall any other Bing’n’Fred films, so let’s decide that it is.  Good.   Right, onwards…

Anyway, the main point is the bit about George Washington.  I’ve recently been thinking a lot about that line, and about George Washington’s parents, and, well just how on earth they did it?


He was such a lovely boy.

For a while, our 3 year old, H, couldn’t tell a lie either.  It was wonderful.  There was the time that I noticed a perfect set of teeth marks on J’s arm.  I took H to one side and asked him about it.  “Oh, I bit him” he replied, giving me his little dimpled smile.  I was a bit taken aback in the face of such alarming honesty, so settled for suggesting that biting his brother was something he shouldn’t do, and we both decided  that henceforth he wouldn’t and so far he hasn’t (a bit of surprisingly successful parenting).

Then H turned 3, and everything changed.  Last night I overheard a conversation between  my husband and H which went along the lines of:

A: Did you get under the covers of the bed? (To set the scene, we’re staying with A’s parents.  H is in the spare room in a little cot bed and next to him is a double guest bed which has been made up.  H has promised that he won’t mess up the covers on the guest bed, or dirty the sheets, or generally wreck it.  He’s promised, so that means that he definitely won’t do anything like that at all.  Of course not.  He’s promised and everything.


Pinky promise – the gold standard of watertight contract sealers.

So, to return to the conversation…)

A: Did you get under the covers of the bed?

H: No.

A: Harry, I want you to tell me the truth.  At the moment I’m going to tell you 3 stories tonight, but if you lie to me you’ll only get 2.  So tell me, did you get under the covers of the bed?

H: No.

A: Harry, I saw you.  You were under the covers of the bed.  So tell me, did you get under the covers of the bed?

H: No.

A: Harry, (in a slightly more exasperated tone), I saw you.  I know you were in the bed.  I want you to tell me the truth yourself.  Were you in the bed?

H: No.

A: (getting a little more worked up now) Harry, do you understand that I SAW YOU IN THE BED?  Stop lying to me.  If you don’t tell me the truth now, you’re only getting one story.  Were you in the bed?

H: No.

A:  Harry, I’m getting cross now.  (He was.  He was getting cross.  I could tell.  I’d have broken ages ago. I was, secretly, a bit impressed with H’s calm demeanour under interrogation, if not his ability to work out what was good for him pretty sharpish.) [Speaking slowly and very deliberately] I saw you in the bed.   You were in the bed.  Now, tell me the truth, were you in the bed?

H: Yes.

He got one story. In our household that’s the equivalent of being locked in the coal cellar for the night.  A normal day is 3 stories, it drops to 2 if it’s late or there’s been a protracted bath time. One story is tantamount to child abuse.


Now, Bunnkin’s Picnic Party is yours to keep,

 images-3 But for this one….


And this one, there’s still everything to play for…

I’m not entirely sure how H thought that that conversation was going to end.  Or how you teach your children not to lie other than by the desperate withholding of Goldilocks drama at the end of the day?  What did Mr and Mrs Washington do?  That knowledge, I fear, has passed in the mists of time.  Any suggestions?

  1. Was Living Down Under permalink

    I’m not sure I have an answer but I can commiserate! We went through the same phase (especially with my oldest child – the middle one, now 5, still tells the truth with a cheeky smile) and similar conversations at our house.

    I read somewhere that when they say no, it’s because they wish they hadn’t (or something like that). So I started saying, “did you wish you hadn’t done it?” I found though that my partner has more success getting the truth because he doesn’t ask “yes/no questions”. So instead of “Did you get in the bed” he would ask “How did the bed get messed up?” At that stage they are often not sophisticated enough to come up with a story…

    I found it a really hard lesson to teach – if you don’t lie to me you’ll get in less trouble – they don’t get that concept until much later. So after getting into several similar discussions as the one you’ve illustrated, I read that it’s best to take their word and let them tell you the truth when they’re ready. So, the conversation might go like this:

    Parent: “H, how did this bed get messed up?”
    H “I dunno”
    Parent “hmmm, well it looks messy and you know you’re not supposed to get in that bed, right?”
    H “Right”
    Parent “And I know that if you got into the bed, you’d tell me, right?”
    H “Right”
    Parent “OK, why don’t you help me make the bed nice again”
    H “OK”
    Parent and H work together to fix the bed.
    Hours later, H approaches parent and confesses.
    H ” Remember when the bed was messed up. It was because I went in it.”
    Parent “Thank you for telling me the truth H. I really appreciate it.” (maybe might indulge themselves by giving a brief lecture on telling the truth).\


    Parent: “Did you get in the bed?”
    H “No”
    Parent “H, I saw you in the bed. Did you wish you hadn’t got in the bed?”
    H “Yes”
    Parent “Because you knew I’d be upset?”
    H “Yes”
    Parent “Well thank you for telling me the truth. Let’s go fix the bed together. Remember, don’t go in the bed, OK?”

    It sounds hokey but they do learn that it’s better to tell the truth. I found that getting angry at them for lying didn’t really help because they couldn’t decipher the reason for the anger (i.e. the child probably thought he was being punished for getting in the bed NOT the lying part).

    Sorry for hijacking your comment section! Hope it helps…

    PS: And in the interest of full disclosure, my house has more of a tendency to be the shouty, pulling your hair out type house than the calm, reasonable, dimples in cheeks type house. Unfortunately 🙂


  2. Was Living Down Under permalink

    oh my – I pressed the post button and then saw how long the comment is – so very sorry 😐


    • Don’t apologise! It’s lovely to hear from you again. Been up to much? Thanks for the advice, btw. Still think you should write a blog – you’ve obviously got it in you.


  3. Was Living Down Under permalink

    I started it. I think you can actually see the page if you search my name. I’ve written a couple of posts but haven’t posted… I’m standing at the edge looking out – now I have to jump 🙂


  4. Ailsa permalink

    Not going to offer advice but, being a Fred Astaire anorak!!!, I can confirm the song “I can’t tell a lie” comes from Holiday Inn, starring Astaire and Crosby. Astaire danced with Marjorie Reynolds during the number. Fred and Bing also starred together in Blue Skies in 1946.


  5. Good knowledge! I don’t know Blue Skies. Worth checking out?


  6. Nicholas Coddington permalink

    My children love Lost at the Fair. I also do a Star Wars version for my eldest son.

    At the window, Han Solo,
    called out “wake up, there’s a fair”
    all the Jedis will be going,
    everybody will be there.


  7. Truth is so relative. Children just instinctively know that at a young age.

    (I don’t mean it.)

    I used to use bedtime stories as a bribe. Son would always be “down a story” or “up a story”. Then he started school, and you have these horrible sheets you have to sign to say you’ve “done reading” that evening with your child. And what used to be a reward is turned into a school chore. Bah!


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