Lying is in the news again today, as it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow.
The latest count (by the Washington Post) has Donald Trump at over 5,000 false or misleading statements on only his 601st day as president. This past September 7 was DJT’s new one-day high, at an astounding 125 false or misleading claims.
But today’s blog post isn’t about the president, it’s about parenting. Truth be told (and I’m not lying about this), children tell lies sometimes; lying, among children and teens (and adults), is a natural and normal act. However, even though lying is a normal childhood behavior, you probably don’t like it when your children lie—especially when they lie to you.
Relationships between parents and children are complex and multidimensional. You could probably say the same thing about any relationships that involve love and living together. One particularly complex dimension of parent-child relationships involves how selective children are when they watch, listen, comment, and copy their parents’ behavior.
On the one hand, parents often feel like their children aren’t listening to them (“that darn kid doesn’t listen”). On the other hand and ironically, children’s observational powers seem to be at their peak during those moments when parents engage in less positive behaviors, including the parental exaggeration, fib, or outright lie. Then, and especially then, children’s ears perk up and, no big surprise, they catch you in your lie!
In addition to the irony of your children’s selective attention to your moral and ethical missteps, having a president like Donald Trump makes preaching the virtues of honesty all the more challenging. After all, he’s publicly telling many lies every day, and he’s attained his success, in part, because of his self-professed philosophy of lying, never admitting he’s wrong, and never apologizing. He shapes reality around what he thinks, which I would guess, is exactly the opposite of what parents want to teach their children.
Consider this excerpt from an essay titled “Fathers” by Alice Walker.
I recall a scene when I was only three or so in which my father questioned me about a fruit jar I had accidentally broken. I felt he knew I had broken it, at the same time I couldn’t be sure. Apparently, breaking it was, in any event, the wrong thing to have done. I could say, Yes, I broke the jar, and risk a whipping for breaking something valuable, or No, I did not break it, and perhaps bluff my way through.
I’ve never forgotten my feeling that he really wanted me to tell the truth. And because he seemed to desire it and the moments during which he waited for my reply seemed quite out of time, so much so I can still feel them, and, as I said, I was only three I confessed. I broke the jar, I said. I think he hugged me. He probably didn’t, but I still feel as if he did, so embraced did I feel by the happy relief I noted on his face and by the fact that he didn’t punish me at all, but seemed, instead, pleased with me. I think it was at that moment that I resolved to take my chances with the truth, although as the years rolled on I was to break more serious things in his scheme of things than fruit jars (you can find this essay in Alice Walker’s book of essays titled, “Living by the word,” p. 12; see, https://www.amazon.com/Living-Word-Selected-Writings-1973-1987/dp/0156528657/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1541802856&sr=1-2&keywords=alice+walker+essays).
Alice Walker sensed, at a very young age, that her father wanted the truth, she gave it to him, and he provided her with positive reinforcement (and no punishment) in response to her honesty. That’s a powerful sequence, and one way that parents teach children to value honesty.
Just yesterday, Sara Polanchek and I recorded a Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast episode on “Why Kids Lie and What to Do about It.” The podcast isn’t available yet, but it will be soon. In the meantime, here are some highlights.
Because all children lie and lying is a natural part of child development, we encourage parents to “be curious and not furious” about children’s lies. That doesn’t mean you should accept their lies; it does mean you should try to understand your child’s motivations for lying, before reacting (or overreacting). Here are some of the most common reasons why children lie and ideas about how to respond.
- Young children (typically 2 and under) will lie because they don’t understand the differences between fantasy and reality and/or because they’re experimenting with fantasy and reality. This might involve, “the monster broke my toy” or “that’s my doll!” If you think your young child can’t quite make the distinction between reality (what happened) and fantasy (what the child wishes or thinks might have happened), a little empathy, mutual exploration, and limit-setting might be in order: “Darn. It’s upsetting when toys get broken. How can we make sure the monster doesn’t break any more? And, I hope it doesn’t happen again, because we only have so many toys.”
- For children and adults, many lies are a product of self-defense or self-protection. As in the Alice Walker essay, children may be scared of or be avoiding negative consequences. One way to help your children through their fears of telling the truth is to do what Alice Walker’s father did: Communicate how much you value honesty, and sometimes, when your child is honest, let them out of the natural consequences.
- Ego-boosting is another reason why kids (and adult) lie. Most people want to look better than they are or to have more than they have, and that can result in bragging or boasting. One way of dealing with this motivation is to focus on the real and true things that you value about your children. Additionally, it’s important to let children know that you love them—even when they’re imperfect.
- As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Your children will notice when you lie and when you tell the truth. If you really want to instill values of honesty—that means making a commitment to being honest yourself—at least in front of the children. One powerful way of modeling honesty is to honestly share with your children times when you wanted to lie about something, but chose to tell the truth instead. Children can benefit from understanding (and seeing) that telling the truth isn’t always easy and that it’s natural to feel the temptation to deceive others for protection, gain, or self-promotion.
There are many more motivations for lying that Sara and I discuss on the upcoming podcast. We also discuss some additional ideas for promoting honesty. Here are a few quick points:
- Gently inquire with your kids about what’s wrong with lying (or cheating or stealing, etc.).
- Keep your ears tuned for signs of your kid taking personal responsibility, having empathy for others, and principles such as trust . . . and celebrate those when you notice them.
- Whatever your child says, accept it, note that it’s interesting, then share your perspective.
- Avoid preaching.
- Avoid extra harsh punishment because it can promote the use of lying out of fear.
- Make a practice of being truthful yourself. As a parent, you set the standard.
- Don’t play detective. Keep in mind the old saying, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.” Apply natural and unpleasant consequences when there’s available evidence, but don’t set your child up to tell a lie. Instead, tell your child what you know and let your child expand on it. Schaefer (1995) uses the following example: If you know your child did poorly on a test at school, don’t ask, “Did you pass your exam?” Instead, make a statement: “Your teacher called and told us that you failed the test. We are worried. We wonder how to be of help?”
- Let your children know that if they’re honest about misbehavior you’ll do what you can to be helpful. On the other hand, if they lie about misbehavior, the natural penalty will be double (one consequence for the misbehavior and one consequence for the lie).
- Use books and stories to teach moral values.
- Let your child know, repeatedly, how much you appreciate honesty and openness. And be prepared for times when you will be disappointed. When appropriate, share your disappointment rather than your anger.
- If, after using the previously mentioned suggestions, the lying persists, family counseling or counseling for your child might be a good idea.
No doubt, lying will continue to be in the news. It appears that there’s not much we can do about that in the short term. However, as a supportive, limit-setting, and positive role model, you can reduce the amount of lying that happens in your own home. And when it comes to building a truth-telling society, promoting honesty in your home is a great place to start.