If parents stretch the truth or commit ‘harmless’ acts of dishonesty, their children are likely to do the same. Here are ways—besides setting a good example—to encourage children not to lie or otherwise be dishonest.
In our home we call it the Pinocchio Principle: “If you lie, your nose will grow.” Of course that caution comes from a fairy tale about a puppet, but it is a revealing assessment of what begins when we enter into deceit: Someway, sooner or later, the lie will become as plain as the nose on your face.
Some parents would be happy if their child’s nose provided such an accurate indication of untruth. But remember that often what a child is doing is patterned after behavior observed in a parent. If your child knows that sometimes you stretch things a little, it is likely that somewhere along the way, he or she may do the same.
“I don’t like to see parents lie to their children, even if the lies are harmless,” says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., in his book The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004). “It sends the message that it’s O.K. to fib when you need to.”
Here’s a case in point:
“I had just finished telling my 9-year-old that she needed to be honest,” one mother lamented. “Then the phone rang, and I said, ‘Tell them I’m not home.’ My daughter looked straight at me and said, ‘Mother, I have to tell the truth.’”
“If you’re honest, even in the little things, they pick up on that,” says Cynthia Bourne of Salt Lake City, Utah, who raised three children as a single mother after her husband died and has raised two more with her second husband, Hal. “Just a little thing like saying to a sales clerk, ‘You gave me too much change,’ and returning the extra money, sets an example that you always try to be honest.”
A SECOND CHANCE TO TELL THE TRUTH
I asked my son Taylor what helped him learn to be honest, and he said, “Breaking that window.” I remember it well. He was about 10 years old and had been assigned to gather apples that had fallen off the tree in our front yard. But instead, he was throwing the apples into tall grass in the side yard, where he thought they’d never be found.
One apple slipped as he threw it and sailed straight through the next-door neighbor’s garage window. It took a day before Taylor summoned the courage to talk to us, and at first he tried to blame the broken window on a mysterious kid wearing a black backpack who had been wandering down the street.
“That’s interesting,” my wife said. “Why was he wearing a backpack when school’s out of session?” A few more questions and we were pretty certain things didn’t add up.
“Let’s start over,” I said. “Why don’t we go look at the window together?” Rather than accusing him of lying, we gave him a second chance to tell the truth. Pretty soon we knew exactly what he had done. Together we looked at the damage and decided what we could do to fix it.
But we didn’t let him off the hook by allowing him to say things like, “The window got broken.” We helped him to see it was better to state it honestly: “I broke the window.”
“The hardest part,” Taylor recalls, “was when you made me apologize.” But the neighbor gave permission to make the repairs. Together, we purchased glass and glazing compound, then spent an afternoon digging out the broken glass and putting in a new pane.
Taylor agreed to earn money to pay me back, and he still remembers the hours we spent fixing the window together. The important thing is that today, just seeing the neighbor’s window reminds us both that we took responsibility and solved the problem.
USEFUL PATTERNS FOR PARENTS
There’s a similar episode in the children’s book The Berenstain Bears and the Truth (Random House, New York, 1983) by Stan and Jan Berenstain.
The bear cubs break a rule by playing soccer in the house, and an errant kick knocks a lamp off a table, breaking it. Instead of accepting responsibility, they blame the accident on a bird—a purple bird—with yellow feet—and green wing tips—and funny-looking red feathers sticking out of its head.
“As most lies do,” the book continues, “the purple bird whopper got bigger and bigger and bigger.” Papa Bear asks them to repeat the story, but they can’t keep their facts straight. He asks simple questions, and each time the answers are different.
Then Mama Bear says, “What I’m sad about is the thought that maybe, just maybe, my cubs, whom I’ve always trusted, aren’t telling me the truth.” She points out that trust, once broken, is more difficult to fix than a shattered lamp.
It is just a children’s story, but it shows some patterns that may be helpful for parents.
Don’t growl. Ask what happened. Keep asking simple questions. Express your own sadness and disappointment. Provide every opportunity for the child to tell the truth. Help the child accept responsibility.
Mara Alford of Huntsville, Ala., says her 11-year-old son, Jason, taught her an important lesson about honesty. “We were talking about how when we’re dishonest, we not only hurt others, but we also lose self-respect. He said that the easiest time to keep from telling a lie is when it’s small.”
“Sometimes people try to make you think it’s O.K. to lie just a little bit, but that’s where you have to draw the line,” Jason explains. “It’s easy to stop when the lies are little. It gets harder and harder if the lies go on.”
HELPING A CHILD FACE CONSEQUENCES
Jim Fay and Charles Fay, Ph.D., go after the same concept in their book Love and Logic Magic: When Kids Leave You Speechless (Love and Logic Press, Golden, Colo., 2001). They suggest that an extremely important part of helping children to be honest is to not rescue them from the consequences of their actions.
Show both love and sadness when a poor choice is made, and it will help the child to “own” the pain of his or her poor decision. It will also help him to not make excuses, like blaming teachers, coaches, or even parents.
“Early on, convey to your child that being responsible for doing the right thing and being accountable for the consequences of mistakes are not optional,” say William Sears, M.D.; Martha Sears, R.N.; and Elizabeth Pantley in The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well (Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 2002).
“Refuse to accept irresponsible excuses,” they advise. “A 4-year-old knocks over a vase of flowers and when asked about it says, ‘The cat did it!’ Of course, Mom knows better, but she also knows that blaming the cat is easy while admitting that ‘I wasn’t supposed to be running in the house’ is hard.
“A wise parent in this situation doesn’t get into an argument about who knocked over the vase. Instead, she reminds the rambunctious 4-year-old that this is why there are rules about running in the house and then helps him find a rag to wipe up the mess.”
And what about teens? In their book Ten Secrets Wise Parents Know: Tried and True Things You Can Do to Raise Faithful, Confident, Responsible Children (Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, 2004), Brent L. Top and Bruce A. Chadwick write about a father who employed humor to get his teenage boys to tell the truth about where they were going by asking: “‘What if a good-looking girl calls for you? How will I know where to forward the call?’ With that, the sons would laughingly reveal their plans for the evening.”
Top and Chadwick also advocate the principle of “trust but verify.”
“We can trust that our children, whatever their ages, are truthful with us regarding their friends, activities, behavior, school performance, money acquisitions and expenditures, and a host of tougher issues. But we need to know where to go to verify what they tell us.
“Sometimes,” the authors say, “a funny look or a blank stare [from a teen] should send up a red flag.”
Or perhaps it would be an indication that someone’s nose is starting to grow.
Richard M. Romney lives in Salt Lake City.
Making Distinctions When Sharing the Truth
Are there times when it’s appropriate for a child not to tell the truth?
“Maybe there’s a better way to phrase the question,” says Norm Ross, a volunteer crime-prevention specialist with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office. “If you ask, ‘Is there information that children should not share with just anyone?’ the obvious answer is yes. For example, if a stranger on the telephone wants to know if a child is home alone, it’s not good for the child to share that information, even though it is true.”
Ross suggests that parents need to help children make a distinction between telling the truth and sharing inappropriate information demanded by an unknown adult, as well as being able to avoid those situations in which sharing the truth with strangers could be dangerous.
Here are some suggestions: