My daughter has been wearing a bandage around her uninjured left foot for over a week.
When I picked her up from school last week, she was hopping around on one foot. Despite the elaborate tale she told and the fact that she kept hopping on one foot all evening until bedtime, and again straight out of bed the next morning, she was actually fine.
Once or twice that first evening, I caught her with her guard down, standing on both feet. Using my least judgmental mommy voice, I would say, “Look, you’re standing on both feet!” And she would immediately recoil her foot start crying—really crying—that it really did hurt and that standing on it just then made it hurt even more.
I decided to take her claim seriously anyway. I’m not in her body. I want to teach her to take care of and listen to her body, and the whole ruse seemed too elaborate for a seven year old to be a definite, easy-to-spot lie. Maybe she didn’t need to be hopping around, but maybe there was a real injury that would get worse if I told her to toughen up and shake it off.
In addition to promising to take her to the doctor the next morning, I wrote a note to her teacher asking why she wasn’t sent to the nurse after hopping around all day—only to find out that she hadn’t been hopping around all day. Her teacher said it was only a little at the end of the day and her instinct was that it was something that required sympathy more than urgent attention. Trying to get the truth out of her, I read the reply to my daughter on the way to the doctor. She did adjust her story, but she stuck to it.
I tried repeatedly to give her a way out of her lie. I suggested that maybe her foot was feeling better, which would be great and she could just let me know. She declined. In a hail mary attempt, I told her that she really needed to tell the truth to the doctor, no matter what it was.
When we got there, I spoke to the doctor alone before she saw my daughter so I could explain that it’s possible that nothing was really wrong. I felt embarrassed that I needed the help of a doctor to fix an imaginary injury. But what else to do?
Maybe it’s my fault. I can admit it. I give my kids unnecessary Band-Aids. But the thing is—placebos work! If a real Band-Aid will help stop real tears, does it matter that it’s not serving its official purpose to stop bleeding?
I think it’s just part of what moms do—kiss and make it better.
After an exam turned up no obvious reason to worry, the doctor told her that her foot wasn’t broken or fractured. Maybe it was a little bruised, she suggested. At least that offered the validation of naming it.
In an effort to get her to stop hopping around on one foot (and possibly sustaining an actual injury), the doctor taped up her foot in a bright purple bandage and told her that she would now be able to walk on it. Of course, leaving out the fact that she could have walked on it a minute before, too, without the bandage.
After a little nudging, the hopping stopped. She said the bandage made it better, and she could now walk on two feet. And she did. By the time I got her to school that day, the teacher had to tell her to walk, not skip, in the hallway.
If a real bandage can heal fake pain, is that so terrible?
In her second grade class, they are studying issues around disability and accessibility, and it turns out that she’s not the only one hoping around. Three other girls also claimed ankle injuries and hopped around on one foot, but those resolved on their own in a few hours. There’s also an older girl at school who has been hobbling around with a cast on her leg and crutches tricked out with stuffed tigers that must seem the height of cool to a seven year old. Maybe she’s just trying on what it would be like to have a disability or a serious injury.
“Time to read her The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” my mom remarked.
Why was she lying? Did she even know she was lying? Was this a simple cry for attention? If I didn’t make her see—and say—that she was lying, was she on some dangerous road to becoming a compulsive liar? Confused about what to do, I talked to a friend who is an early childhood educator. She laughed. And praised my daughter’s rich imagination. She’s just telling stories, she said. It’s apparently totally normal for her age. For me, knowing that a behavior is age-appropriate really helps keep the frustration at bay.
I confess I sometimes make moments like this more than they are. I’m afraid I’ll miss a potential “teachable moment” by saying nothing or saying the wrong thing. And the chance might never come along again! One parenting mistake at a critical moment will ruin her forever! This is the thing she’ll blame me for when she’s in therapy in 20 years!
When I can see how absurd that is and let go of this idea that there is one perfect thing to say, one big moment I can screw up, one sentence in one talk that will make some permanent difference, I tell myself that it’s not a test. Not everything is a test. If I can't fail at it, then I can't ace it either. So my inner straight-A-student just needs to take a deep breath.
Another parent may have chosen to call her bluff in some way. Or be angry that she lied. Or just have ignored the whole thing. I’ve decided to think of the purple bandage like a tutu. I would let her wear a tutu almost anywhere (with weather appropriate accessories, of course), so I can do the same with this play prop too.
I probably didn’t do the right thing or the wrong thing. And either way, she won’t go off to college with a purple bandage around her foot. And that’s pretty much where I draw the good parenting line. If it’ll clear up on its own before college, I should just relax.
Hopefully she’ll get bored. Until then, I’ll just try to keep giving her kisses to make it better.