Telling the Truth

We have all done it.  We see the cookie crumbs sprinkled down our child’s shirt or the purloined item held behind their back, and we have to ask the big question: “Tell me the truth: did you eat one of the cookies?”  Or, “Don’t lie to me; did you steal that from somebody?” It seems like a simple question: did you do this or not?  Tell the truth!  Yet a question like this prompts a child to make a rapid calculation: “Is it better to say “Yes, I did something wrong” or “No, I didn’t do it”?  If a child tells the truth, he is in trouble.  If he denies he has done something wrong, he may get away with it.

It helps to remember that children sometimes tell a lie just because they wish so very much that things were different.  Other times, a child might tell a lie to avoid trouble, to make themselves look more wonderful, or even for the fun of pulling the wool over an adult’s eyes.  Lying is not, in itself, a sign that a child does not know the difference between right and wrong.

Mark was driving very fast along the BWI parkway, trying to make up the time he had lost by leaving the house late.  With a jolt, he recognized the flashing light of the state trooper in his rear view window, and pulled over in response to the trooper’s signal.  When the officer walked up to his car window, he asked, “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?”  “Oh no, officer,” Mark replied, with an innocent look, “Was I breaking the speed limit?”

Sometimes, especially when the parents feel unsure of their own authority and influence, they can really over-react to their child’s dishonesty.  This is unfortunate, because the more a parent yells or punishes a child for lying, the more they provoke their child to lie and avoid punishment next time.  Most adults are honest, but also occasionally dishonest—especially when they want to avoid unpleasant consequences!  This awareness should make it easier for parents to respond calmly when their child is lying.

• The most important lesson a child needs to learn about dishonesty is that it does not work! Here are some tips for how to teach a child about honesty:

• The most important thing to remember is don’t ask a question that you already know the answer to. If you can see for yourself, what a child has done wrong—cut to the chase.  There is no point in asking the child “did you do this?!” because it will immediately put the child on the defensive and therefore probably to lie in response.. The second thing to remember is don’t take a child’s lies too seriously. Children’s occassional dishonesty is not a sign that they are heading for a future in crime or advertising.  Most dishonesty is simply a mistake she has made as part of her learning how to grow up.

• The third thing to remember is you encourage your child to be truthful when you show her that honesty is more useful than dishonesty. This means that sometimes parents have to teach children that there are common sense consequences to all misbehavior, including lying or stealing. When Michael’s mother found his friend’s Drew’s super-soaker hidden under her son’s bed, she wisely decided not to say anything at first.  However, the next time Drew was invited to their house to play, she asked Michael kindly if he would planned to play with the super-soakers.  “No, I can’t do that!” said Michael, “then he’ll know I took his favorite super soaker!”  “Ah…so hiding Drew’s super-soaker wasn’t such a good idea was it?  Why don’t you give it back to him, then, so you both can play super soakers again?”

Sometimes, it helps to take the most playful approach to a child’s persistent misbehavior, such a lying, and make a game out of it.  The family might make a Saturday into a “Whopper” day, and everyone is encouraged to be anything but truthful.  One Dad will announce he is making pancakes, and then serve scrambled eggs.  The other Daddy can invite everyone to go with him to the playground, and then not do it, because he isn’t being truthful.  At the same time, both Dads can refuse to believe anything the children ask or tell them, because nothing they say can be true.  Without lectures or punishment, children can experience for themselves what it would be like to live in a home without trust and honesty.  This experience will teach more about the value of honesty than any lecture or morality tale ever could.