Truthful Children

Living in a society in which our highest government officials and largest corporations are routinely found to be dishonest, how can we teach our children to be truthful? A recent Reader’s Digest article exposed that over 60% of high school students admitted to plagiarizing. (And those are only the ones that acknowledged their cheating!)

Although our children will learn many lessons from their parents and teachers, the most powerful lessons will be the ones they learn from our actions, especially from our actions in dealing with him.

Some parents regularly repeat their questions for their kids and cross-examine them, particularly if they have reason to suspect that the truth is not being told. Unconsciously, these parents are actually raising their child in a direction away from integrity. When children see that their parents constantly doubt them, they learn that their word cannot be trusted, and associate themselves with being a liar.

Studies have demonstrated a surprising fact about truthful kids: When children are raised by somewhat naive parents who believe their children readily, they are more likely to lead lives of integrity. This is a direct result of the message that the parent sends- unspoken message that by taking the child’s words as facts (even if the kid lied once in a while!) he was a person who could be trusted to speak the truth!

When you suspect your child of telling a lie that does not carry great consequences, in the long run, it is far better to believe him and feed his view of himself as a truthful person, than to make a fuss regarding minor details. Obviously, if the child had lied about a grave matter, a responsible parent will address the necessary facts, however most of the time children distort their views of reality in an inconsequential manner.

Child-rearing is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you regularly trust your child, he considers himself a person of truth!

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  1. Bill Harrington says:

    I strongly disagree with the contention that little lies are okay. It is far too subjective. What is a little lie one day might not be seen the same on another day where stress and ftugue have gotten the better of us. The way children learn is through kind and consistent expectations, and consequences. The only thing a child who is able to get away with small lies will learn is that small lies are alright. Not that lying is wrong.

  2. Hi Bill, I’ve been waiting for a comment like this, so thank you for addressing that point!

    I do not believe that little lies are ok.

    I do believe that everything we do has pros and cons.

    The point of the article is to express my personal view that the pros of believing and trusting a child will lead to a child that feels valued and tursted. On the opposite end of the spectrum, consistently cross-examining a child in order to get the entire “truth of the matter” out of him/her, will often lead to a child that does not feel that his/her words are valued, and that he/she deserves trust.

    So, when my 5-year-old says, “I saw a spider with eleven legs!” rather than responding with “Spiders can’t have eleven legs” or “I’m not so sure about that- let’s go count those legs” I will tell him, “Wow, that’s really interesting that you saw that!”

    In doing so, I am not constantly questioning his view of reality, nor is any harm done with regard to the effect of the amount of the spiders legs being considered to be 11 instead of 8, by a five-year-old.

    Does that make sense to you?

  3. Bill Harrington says:

    I was listening to Jim Rome, sports commentator on the weekend. He was talking about cheeting in sports. Apparently scuffing a ball (something pitchers do to get the ball to move more) is not cheeting, but Barry Bonds allegedly taking steroids is. Cheeting is cheeting. Lying is lying. No matter how we dress them up.
    I agree that when children are interrogated they are likely to clam up and just be more careful about what they do next time, rather than admitting that they have been untruthful.
    But we can ask these questions and rspond to their answers in a way that is respectful of the child and still maintaining the fact that lying/cheeting/whatever, is not condomned in this house, because we believe that each time you lie, it takes a little bit of your honor and integrity away.
    Have I lied in my lifetime? Sure. Have I felt good about it? Nope. Not even when I never got caught. Build on the qualities that are going to make our children confident and capable citizens, not the qualities that are going to get our children looking for “grey areas” and try to exploit them.

  4. Hi not sure really what to say on this one.

    we have a 12 year old who lies quite convincingly about some fairly serious matters (some fairly insignificant ones too – did she put 2 spoons of sugar on her cereal?) and acts absolutely mortified when we don’t believe her. she reacts this way regardless of whether she was telling the truth or lying. it’s been a real nightmare for us trying to work out whether to go along with her or to try and show her how we know she is lying, or trying to get to the bottom of the lie. our general perspective is to always tell her it’s ok to own up at anytime later and let her know that we are sorry/regretful for not being able to automatically trust her.

    we also have a 9 year old who has so far been completely trustworthy, mainly because the occassional lie she has told us has left her so riddled with guilt that she has confessed in a letter/via email almost as soon as the lie is told! her lies usually come from being distressed/distraught over an event that has occurred previously and are a symptom of something being wrong

    the baby has yet to worry us with her potential for lies (she’s 5 months) i guess, as with the other 2 we’ll play it by ear!!

    in response to ellens comment on the spiders legs, i agree with letting that go, i think that doesn’t really count as a lie, although is it a taste of exageration to come? we have a friend whose daughter (aged 9) cannot be truthful about anything, everything has to be exagerated.

  5. Bill Harrington says:

    You do not have to be sorry or regretful. This becomes your child’s teachable moment. You are not accusing, blaming, intimidating, threatening… No relationship works well if we can not trust each other because of past experiences. Trust is critical. We learn to trust, as well as the importance of telling the truth. We learn to tell the truth by seeing our parents telling the truth, not cheating on income tax, walking away when an item was left off a receipt at a store…Children learn first by what they see us do – then by what they hear us say.
    If your child has a difficult time telling the truth, continue to love her. Taking love away is never a productive form of teaching. Talk about honesty and trust throughout the day. When you see someone do something trustworthy, talk about it and the resulting consequences. When you see/hear someone lying, talk about it and the resulting consequences. Honesty is not dependent on circumstance. Something is either honest, or it is not. Children need to see the clear distinction between honesty and lying. In this way, they have a better chance of”doing the right thing, even when noone is watching”.

  6. We are raising our 12 1/2 year old grandaughter. The largest problem right now is that she steals, usually cigarettes or a lighter, then will lie until the end of time. The only remorse is that she got caught.

    The lying is about everything. There are days that if she told me it was raining, I would have to look outside for myself. This is really becoming a major issue in our home.

    Does she know right for wrong? Certainly. She also knows the meaning of Integrity. My problem is that she has none.

    What’s next?
    I find myself as the prisoner to her behavior.

  7. Sheila,
    Wow. I’m sorry to hear your predicament. Sounds to me like this young lady has been allowed a little too much leniency in her first 12 1/2 years. Middle school-aged girls can be quite a handful these days, with the rolling of the eyes and the lying and lack of respect. I bet Ellen has some great tips in her discipline section, but I definitely would recommend you consider various consequences for her actions if you are expecting things to change. She needs to know that certain things will never be tolerated by you, because it is your job to teach her appropriate behavior. Perhaps the next time’s she’s caught in a lie, she needs to sit down and write you a 500 word essay/apology on why it’s important to tell the truth. You should withhold all privelages until it’s done (e.g. no TV, computer, telephone, sports, dining out, friends, etc). I think essays are great because it is a non-violent and effective method to curb behavior, plus it improves their writing skills in the process and you may uncover something she was unable to verbalize before. Good luck!

  8. Mommy2 4 says:

    I have four children, three of which have special needs. My problem is this: My youngest daughter is Autistic, so at this point, she is the focus of my attention. My 9 year old daughter (preemie, adhd severe) has become a pathological liar. She lies about everything – she goes into the shower and stands there and says she washed (NASTY!), she lies about brushing her teeth (NASTY AGAIN), she lies and said that she did nothing to her sister when in fact, she is grabbing and shoving a child with severe sensory issues resulting in the little one who has limited communication skills – biting kicking hiting etc.,. I was raised that there is nothing in the world worse than a liar. I have talked to my 9yo about this a lot – telling her that it has gotten to the point that I don’t believe anything that comes out of her mouth…. I am so frustrated! My 14yo who has a developmental disability used to do the same thing, and just sort of grew out of it. I have zero tolerance for liars… What can I do????

  9. Mommy2 4–
    I think that several of your comments are very relevant to what Ellen is trying to say–you say you have “zero tolerance for liars” which sounds like you have decided that your daughter is one which is probably also perpetuating her image of herself as a liar. Also, calling not washing or brushing teeth nasty is a little much. It may not be terribly hygenic, but it is not exactly nasty…sounds like you reaqct strongly to these things and she may be calling out for attention. Maybe you could ease up a bit and try to find good things about her to focus on for a while and also make some time to spend with just her.

  10. Charlie - dad of 3 says:

    This is my first post to this website, so please forgive me for lack of knowledge. But this article and conversation got to me. Our country right now is suffering from leaders who are, simply put, dishonest. They lie to get and stay in power and we seem to ignore the lies because the “end justifies the means.” That seems to be the point of the article and several responses. It’s okay to lie as long as it fulfills another higher purpose. Give me a break folks! My children know, because it’s critically important in our house, that telling the truth to parents and others is one of the most important characteristics in a person’s life. I’m not saying that my children don’t lie, but I know I can trust them when we face serious situations. They also know that lying is absolutely unacceptable to me and their mother. And we make every attempt to show them by example. We should not give in to lies as citizens and especially as parents.

  11. Usually, when my children lie it’s out of convenience (Did you brush your teeth? Yes. Wow, you spent 10 seconds – that was quick! Well, I just rinsed my mouth. Then, I guess you don’t mind if your teeth fall off when you’re an adult.) They usually correct the lie after they’ve said it. Sometimes, they lie to improve their self-image to me or to their friends, in which case I assure them that it’s not necessary to build themselves up falsely, because they’re wonderful just the way they are, that everyone makes mistakes and learns. If they lie about hurting someone (physically, gossip) I help them verbalize the complete event and get them to the process of immediate reconciliation, because feeling and showing remorse when you lie is a great deterrent to future lying.

  12. I have a question about what age or stage of development that you can expect a child to be able to recognize the difference between a lie and just voicing what they WISH for. My son (10) has always been impeccably truthful, but my daughter (now 7) is either lying much of the time or relating a version of events that she would prefer to the reality. (“I pushed my arm out because to relieve some of my anger–I didn’t mean to punch her with it…”)

  13. Hi Ellen,

    I have been reading your site for a while now. My son is 6 years old. Two of his habits worry me. He hurts other kids at school and he lies. Since he is aware that there are consequences to hurting others, he lies after. For instance, today is the first day of school after the winterbreak. He came home and told me that he had a fine day. When I asked him a little later, he said that he got NPT (No Play Time- this is his teacher’s method of disciplining; for the first mistake, the child gets a first warning, and for the second one, their play time is taken away.) He turned 6 in December. While he is an affectionate child, no matter how much we try to trust him, he lies to avoid the consequences of wrong behaviour. This has been happening for over a year now. His teacher has also spoken to me about this and now I know it has reached a worrisome proportion. He hurts a child, and when that child reacts, my son lies saying ,”I never even touched him” and then faces a consequence for lying. He lies for other things too like hurling the cordless phone across the room right in front of my eyes and then he says, “No, I didn’t”. I sometimes wonder whether to applaud him for telling the truth ( that he got NPT today) or to deal with the issue if hurting others and then lying! It has been too long with this now and he is not responding positively to my husband and me trusting him. I hope you can make a suggestion.