To tell the truth

How to teach kids the value of honesty

“Betrayed.” That’s how Mary Atwater felt the first time her son, Christopher, then six, deliberately deceived her. “I was at a school committee meeting and his teacher happened to mention a note she had sent home that I’d never received,” recalls the Fall River, NS, mom. “We went to her classroom to talk, and she showed me a duplicate, which basically said Chris had to settle down and focus more on his work. I was furious that this was the first time I’d seen it.” While Chris hadn’t actually told a bald-faced lie, Atwater was still upset he had tried to conceal the truth — even though his teacher assured her it wasn’t unusual for kids his age to hide notes or lie about them to avoid the consequences.

“The tendency to tell lies is a very normal part of a child’s development,” says Joan Peskin, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Toronto. It’s all part of growing up and learning to distinguish right from wrong. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling perplexed, angry or disappointed when our crumb-covered toddler denies eating a cupcake, our mini-Monet won’t fess up to repainting the living room wall, or an older child tries to put one over on us. Before overreacting, push the pause button and take a deep breath, advises Peskin. It’s important to first discover the motive behind your child’s lie, so you’re better prepared to deal with it.

Find out why

When my daughter, Scotia, was a tot, her lies were so transparent it was hard not to chuckle. “Mommy, I didn’t eat a cookie and I promise I’ll never do it again,” she’d say in all sincerity. “Toddlers and preschoolers don’t fully grasp the concept of telling the truth,” says Peskin. “They may think, ‘When I heard my brother say he didn’t do it, he wasn’t reproached. And when I heard my sister say she wouldn’t do it again, she didn’t get into trouble either.’ So they use both expressions.”

The innocent lies of younger kids are often caused by forgetfulness, a vivid imagination or just plain wishful thinking (I wish it didn’t happen, ergo it didn’t happen). Their fantasies can seem very real to them and they may genuinely believe that their tales about fairies, imaginary friends and trips to Disney World are true. Youngsters may make up stories to get attention, to impress you (and themselves) with tales of their amazing feats, or to get something they really want. Jane McMullen’s daughter, Evelyn, four, loves to weave tales about her day’s adventures, including the wonderful lunches she’s eaten at daycare. “She doesn’t always like the food she gets there,” laughs McMullen, “so she embellishes.” The Toronto mom of two knows her daughter’s stories are harmless and she has no intention of squelching her creativity. “She just wants to be funny and entertain us and keep the attention focused on herself.”

Genuine deception (deliberately intending to mislead) starts to appear around age four, when children begin to distinguish right from wrong, says Paul Ekman in his book Why Kids Lie. They figure out that lying can be a strategic way to solve a problem, get what they want or avoid punishment. Your eight-year-old may swear his homework is done so he can play his favourite video game or, conversely, say he has homework to get out of doing chores. Older kids feel the need to have separate identities from their parents, so if you’re constantly grilling your teen for information, he may lie to protect his privacy. Too much pressure can also lead to fibbing. On the day my daughter’s grade-one report card was due home, she insisted her teacher had forgotten to pass them out. After some gentle probing, I discovered the truth: She was afraid I’d be disappointed there weren’t any A’s.

Build a strong foundation

Understanding the concept of honesty is something children learn gradually over time, through trial and error. “You can start speaking rationally to children about moral issues around ages five or six, as long as you put it in a simple, concrete way,” says Peskin. Begin with an explanation of why honesty is important — “You know when somebody tells the truth you can trust them.” This might be a good time to bring up Aesop’s classic fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Look for opportunities on a day-to-day basis to talk about values like truthfulness, honesty and trust, advises Michelle Moreau, a child and family therapist in Saint John, and the mom of three children, ages seven, six and four. “I think it’s unfair if, all of a sudden, you have this expectation of your child and you haven’t talked about it. Spend some time looking at books and movies and TV shows together, and point out how people should treat each other.”

Child development experts say it’s also key to model honesty by telling the truth yourself. Children notice when we lower their age to get a cheaper rate at the movie, or excuse ourselves from talking on the phone because we have invisible visitors. Still, there are times when it’s OK to fudge the truth a little, says Peskin. “I think children are able to understand that in certain situations we might tell a white lie when we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, for example.” And then there are the magical lies of childhood like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. “I don’t think there’s any harm in going along with those when your kids are little,” says Moreau.

Praise rather than punish

Studies show that children are more likely to lie when they have been harshly or inconsistently punished. “Try to avoid negative consequences as much as possible,” advises Peskin. “Instead, look for opportunities to catch your children acting well and reinforce that behaviour.” For instance, when your child does find the courage to fess up to a lie, praise her for her honesty, then focus on finding a solution rather than laying blame or finding a fitting punishment. “Your ultimate goal is to help your child find alternatives to lying,” says Moreau.

Brenda Evans of Caledon, Ont., says she’s always made it clear to her sons (now grown) that they could come to her with any problem — from spilling milk to denting the family car — and they would work it out together. “They know I would never punish them for telling the truth, but I certainly would if I learned they were lying to me,” she says. “It takes a strong person to step up to the plate and admit when they’ve done something wrong. It starts to shape them for adulthood.”
Don’t ignore the problem

“Persistent lying is built on the foundation that one lie has worked,” says Moreau. “You don’t want your child to think she can get away with not telling the truth, so even if you feel like you’re micromanaging, try to address every lie that comes up right away.” If the lying persists and you can’t put your finger on why it’s happening or find a way to resolve it, consider seeking professional help from a counsellor, social worker or psychologist.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

While you do want to call your child on a lie, you never want to call your child a liar. “Shaming your child or labelling him reinforces the behaviour and kids begin to think of themselves as liars,” says Michelle Moreau, a child and family therapist in Saint John. Instead, try to separate the doer from the deed — rephrase “You’re a liar” to “I don’t like your behaviour” or “Let’s talk about your behaviour.”

If you catch your child in a lie, don’t berate her for it, says Joan Peskin, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Toronto. Instead, try to remember a time when she told the truth, and remind her of it: “You told the truth and at the time I was very proud of you and I praised you.” Your child gets the point — that you don’t believe she’s telling the truth now — and you’re reminding her of how good it feels to be honest.