Liar, Liar ...

Teach your kids the value of telling the truth.

Illustration by James Steinberg

One of the first poems most kids learn contains this bit of doggerel: “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” Unfortunately, by the time they learn it, they’ve probably also learned to lie. It’s a good thing liars’ pants don’t spontaneously combust or the fire department would stay pretty busy.

Lying, of course, goes against the values Scouting teaches. The Scout Law starts with trustworthiness; the Venturing Oath includes a promise to seek truth and fairness. And yet few Scouters have encountered a Scout who didn’t stretch the truth—sometimes past the breaking point.

Why Kids Lie

According to the nonprofit American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids lie for a number of reasons. Children under age 6 often tell tall tales for fun, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Older children, on the other hand, lie for the same reasons adults do: to evade responsibility for their actions, to cover up more serious problems, to protect their privacy, to enhance their self-image, and to avoid hurting other people’s feelings by using the truth-stretching tactic known as white lies.

To some extent, lying is normal—if not acceptable—behavior. But chronic or purposeless lying can point to more serious problems, according to clinical psychologist and author Michael Thompson. In his book, co-authored with Teresa Barker, titled It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development From Birth to Age 18, Thompson writes, “You should be worried only when a boy continues lying when he’s been caught at it in the past. Then he’s telling you that he’s driven to lie for emotional reasons, that he feels aggrieved and helpless, and that he is trying to make the world into a better place for himself.”

There could be even more serious reasons, according to family therapist and author Michael Gurian. “Sometimes children will start lying or otherwise seeking negative attention when their parents are fighting and the child is scared a divorce or other trauma will occur in the home,” he writes in his book The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men.

The Lying Game

Kids (and adults) who lie fail to realize that they’re usually making the situation worse. They have to keep track of increasingly elaborate stories, they live in fear of being caught, and they typically must still deal with the problem that caused them to lie in the first place.

In her book What Do You Stand For? A Guide to Building Character (For Kids), Barbara A. Lewis suggests a game—“Wink the Truth”—that demonstrates how hard it can be to maintain a lie. Here’s how to play the game with your guys:

Assemble a group of four or more players to tell a story. The topic might be last weekend’s camp-out or an incident that happened at school. The first player says two sentences, one of which is true and the other is false. The order in which the stories are told doesn’t matter, but he must wink when he tells the lie.

The second player repeats the first two sentences and adds two sentences of his own, winking for both lies (the one he’s repeating and the one he made up). Player three adds two more sentences to the story, again winking for each lie. Continue the story until players start forgetting which sentences are true and which are false.

Debrief the exercise by discussing these questions:

  • How hard was it to remember which sentences were false? Did it make any difference whether the lies were yours or someone else’s?
  • Have you ever been in a real-life situation when you had to maintain a lie?
  • What problem caused that situation?
  • How did you feel in that situation?
  • What happened when the lie was discovered? Did the lie solve the problem? Did the lie worsen it?

Playing the “Wink the Truth” game might not break your Scouts from lying in all situations. But it might cause your boys to reflect on another bit of verse, this one from Sir Walter Scott: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!”

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November - December 2009 Table of Contents