The way I explain it, rationalization works backwards from the answer you want by cherry-picking the logic that gets you to that answer.
Kids use it to sell a story about how life should go in a particular way - like two desserts today because they didn't have any yesterday, or to justify why life went the way it did - like how they couldn't do their homework because it didn't make sense or how they HAD to hit their brother because "he hit me first."
Parents might call them excuses, stories, lies, or even the makings of a future lawyer. My interest is in teaching my kids to appreciate it's flawed logic because no matter who or how old you are, the minute you forget that you are vulnerable to this phenomenon, you can be caught by it.
Not to blow these kiddie crimes out of proportion, but it's a slippery slope. Everyone has a story that justifies his or her actions. Rationalization is used to get out of responsibilities, manipulate a situation, lie, cheat, get drunk, have affairs, discriminate, embezzle, behave in all kinds of abusive ways, bilk people out of billions of dollars, go to war.
The trouble with rationalization is that it insists we minimize information that doesn't fit our answer and oversells any logic that does. What makes it tricky is that there is usually some plausibility to an argument - albeit sometimes quite twisted.
The only way to sidestep rationalizations is to be honest about any 'unspoken motives' that are pushing you in a particular direction (I didn't feel like doing my homework; I wanted to hit my brother).
Helping kids test for rationalization is as simple as asking whether that same information could be used to come up with a different action (ask for help with homework; use your words to deal with your brother). Of course, having them admit that they wanted to hit their brother isn't the end of it, but at least now we're getting to the heart of the matter. It can be so exhausting to spend all that time just to get our kids to admit that they HAD choices. Appreciating that moves us much farther along so we can work on acknowledging the anger while challenging the action.
Using real world examples can also be effective. "Above the law" politicians, unethical business and community members, the plots of movies, most comedy and lawyer shows, and every advertisement is selling an opportunity to justify an action. In fact, late night talk show hosts would be out of business without the absurdity of some of these stories.
So I asked my son if teaching him about the word "rationalization" was useful. He didn't hesitate for a second in saying yes. Frankly, he is now one of the most truthful people I know. He doesn't always make the choices I wish he would, but he is always honest about his reasons.
So does that mean that I'm raising an awesome kid? Well that works for me!
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Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Speaker, Author and Relationship Consultant based in Ann Arbor, Michigan who has great appreciation for the challenges of the heart. She is available for consultation and to answer your questions. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.