A Little Fib or a Big Fat Lie? Teaching Kids Honesty
All children lie occasionally. It's a part of growing up and learning right from wrong. Catching a child in a lie is an opportunity to create a teachable moment. Tell the truth, do you know the best way to confront your son when he lies?
The startling, dreaded sound comes from the other room – the room in which your two children stand, heads down, hands behind their backs. Beside them: a freshly shattered vase.
“OK,” you ask, “who did it?”
“Not me!” is the reply, in unison.
Bill Keane’s Family Circus comic strips often employed a ghostlike character named “Not Me,” who jovially took the blame for the merry mishaps of Keane’s animated children. In reality, however, dishonesty isn’t funny.
Today’s parents can probably remember lying about something to their own moms and dads – as well as the consequences of being “found out.” But beyond normal childhood experimenting with dishonesty are situations that may point to more serious emotional problems, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Kids who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, for example, may start to “tell elaborate stories which appear believable.” In fact, a child telling these stories will do so very enthusiastically to try to receive even more attention.
For some children and adolescents, the need for attention can lead to repetitive or even pathological lying. They may come to see lying as the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers and friends, the AACAP notes, or as an effective way to cover up a larger problem, such as drug or alcohol abuse. Eventually, the child may even become immune to the moral pangs associated with lying.
Honesty is a character trait “learned in the home,” say childhood development experts. Most of the time, childhood lying represents a normal activity and is probably not a serious problem. But it still needs to be dealt with.
Why Do Kids Lie?
The first step in dealing with any unwanted behavior is discovering its root cause, says Bernice Lerner, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. When it comes to lying, Lerner says, the main reason is often the very human goal of self-protection.
“People lie because they want to protect themselves,” she says, “or to keep information from others that they think might have a bad effect.”
In the case of children, Lerner suggests, an additional reason is fear of retribution. “Many children fear what will happen if they tell the truth,” she says. “And that fear outweighs the fear of punishment if they are found out.”
Instead of linking dishonest behaviors to a specific age group or type of child, Lerner believes that each situation is dependent on both the child’s age (both physically and developmentally) and on the individual circumstances.
“It has to do with a lot of factors,” she says of childhood lying. “I do not think it is developmentally based.”
Many younger children first engage in making up stories and telling tall tales simply because they enjoy sharing and hearing these stories, according to the AACAP. The trouble is that young kids “may blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.”
For adolescents, lying can be attractive because it provides a way of tweaking their personalities and defining themselves, which is a major element of this developmental stage.
Lynn Ponton, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California - San Francisco and author of the well-known book The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do, is an expert on why teens are especially drawn to risky behavior, including lying.
“Risk-taking is the tool that adolescents use to establish their identity,” Ponton says. “They do it to discover who they are.”
Though it is therefore part of “normal” development – “as much as going on dates or hanging out with friends” – Ponton warns that dishonest behavior of any kind has a great potential to backfire for teens.
“For many, secondary things take over,” she says. “People learn that they can maneuver people with lying.”
Setting a Good Example
If children learn honesty (or dishonesty) first in the home, then parents and other authority figures that kids encounter have a great influence.
Parents “need to be role models because children are witnesses and they pick up cues from them,” says Lerner. “For example, if parents tell a child to say they are not home when they are, they are putting the child in an uncomfortable position, but they are also teaching the child that it is OK to lie.”
Children who are raised in a home where parents lie will actually repeat the behavior because they aren’t really “confronted about it,” Ponton notes.
Thomas Lickona, a renowned expert on character education and moral development, writes in his book Character Matters that parents need to consider honesty and other such values as seriously as they do academic, athletic or other kinds of achievement for their children.
Lickona, a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, is director of the university’s Center for the Fourth and Fifth R’s (Respect and Responsibility). Parents, he writes, need to take the long view; while good grades and self-esteem are important, “character is much more important to leading a good and fulfilling life.”
And because character develops from the habits we form as children and adolescents, Lickona, too, believes that parents need to be mindful of the influence they have on their kids.
But parents aren’t the only key role models for children. Because many kids spend more time in daycare, school and after-school programs than they do at home, teachers must also be cognizant of dishonesty and how to deal with it appropriately. Ponton notes that in difficult school populations – such as those with students from troubled families or neighborhoods – “teachers are more likely to deal with more dishonesty, and they have to learn to circumvent that and to call the kids on it.” If not, she says, the problem will only escalate.
“If adolescents are not supported and given guidance about it, and given the opportunity to develop their character so they do not have to lie about it,” she says, “they will lie more frequently.”
How Do You Confront a Lie?
There’s no single answer when it comes to how parents and other influential adults should deal with dishonesty in children.
“There is always a judgment call to make,” says Lerner, “but teachers [and parents] should show no tolerance and they should try to nip things in the bud quickly.”
Lerner, the AACAP and other experts offer the following tips that parents and other influential adults can use to respond effectively to a child’s dishonesty:
• Set clear expectations and strive to meet them yourself. Julie, a single mother of two, says her children know that she expects honesty. “I always say to both of them that I expect them to always tell the truth because they want that from me,” she says. “I really make a point of not lying to them, and I tell them so,” she says. “Adults lie a lot. Once in a while, I catch myself starting to lie to them, but I remind myself that I need to live by the same expectations.”
• Explain to the child that he will be respected more if he tells the truth than if he lies, even if the truth might make him feel uncomfortable.
• Talk to children about the importance of honesty at home and in the community; about the difference between make-believe and reality; and about alternatives to lying.
• Give children examples of why honesty is important. “You can not just talk about it abstractly,” Lerner says. “You need to show it through stories and examples. You need to show how lying has consequences and give them examples from things that are safe and at a distance, like stories, artwork, music and film.” Such examples, she says, help bring the issue into focus.
• When a child is caught lying, talk to her about the consequences, how she might have acted differently, and how she should act going forward.
• Avoid browbeating and punishing when broaching the subject of dishonesty. “Children need a compassionate adult who encourages them to tell the truth no matter what,” Ponton says. “Lying is often treated in a negative way, so a compassionate conversation does more to alter the behavior than anything.”
• If it appears that a child has a serious problem with lying, seek professional help from a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
“When it comes to honesty, ultimately, you want children to choose the path that is wise and just and courageous,” says Lerner. “They also need an opportunity to practice being honest to the point that lying becomes uncomfortable because it is not in their character.”
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry – 202-966-7300; – The Web site includes family-oriented tips and facts, including one on children and lying.
Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, Boston University – 617-353-3262; – Studies and promotes character and values education.
Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity and Other Essential Virtues, by Thomas Lickona, Touchstone, 2004.
The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do, by Lynn Ponton, M.D., Basic Books, 1998.
Matthew Robinson is a freelance writer and a preschool teacher.