“Half a truth is often a great lie.” – Benjamin Franklin
The other morning I got up at 6 a.m., but my children were way ahead of me. Stealthily quiet, they greeted me in the kitchen with surprised and not-so-innocent smiles. A stool was placed suspiciously close to the out-of-reach cabinet of special treats. I figured I’d come in just in time before one of them fell, or their mission was successful and I would’ve found them with mouths stuffed with marshmallows.
“Were you either of you climbing on the stool?” I asked.
“No,” Sienna said.
Alessio stood silent, then began inching his way toward the couch and other subjects. I’m pretty sleepy before my morning cup. Until then, I hadn’t noticed that their mission had been half successful. Above my head, the treat cabinet door was open.
“Alessio! You lied,” I said.
“No I didn’t. Sienna did.”
“But you didn’t tell the truth. You let her lie and me believe it.” My kids are only three and four. How could they be so smooth? I appreciate sibling teamwork, but not when it comes to lying.
Toddler truthiness is as squidgy as adult truthiness, which is to say that we all lie to varying degrees and more often than we think. Most adults lie 1-2 times a day. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199704/the-truth-about-lying).
Dr. Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist at Toronto University, has been studying lying in children for 20 years. His findings may surprise you: Lying is part of healthy child development. It requires complex thinking skills. Most of our social interactions require a certain amount of diplomacy that knows when to be frank, when to offer almost the truth, and when to stay silent.
Children begin to lie at about 2 ½ - 3 years old. By 7 years of age, almost 100% of children lie to cover up transgressions. Most children have learned that some lies are okay, others are not. Often by watching their parents.
All parents try to teach their children social politeness, or what I call “kind lying” – which means when Mommy’s friend asks, “How do you like my new hairstyle?” don’t blurt out, “Yuck. I thought it was a hat.” “Try to find something good to say,” many a parent has advised their kids, turning out such gems as: “That’s the best worst pie I’ve ever had.”
My father is a born storyteller, Texas-style. One morning, he was trying to get the kids to eat their breakfast, but they didn’t want to. He explained that if they want to grow as tall as he is, they need to eat good healthy food, especially at breakfast. Their ears began to perk up, but not enough. So he added a dramatic touch. “And if you don’t eat your breakfast, your body won’t have enough food to grow, and you will get smaller and smaller until you’re teeny tiny like a baby again.” Shades of Benjamin Button, it did the trick. Their plates were clean, lickety split.
Inventive playfulness, making a game of things, can work beautifully when done in balance. Later, I sat the kids down and explained that Papa Joe was only joking about them shrinking as tiny as babies, but not joking about how healthy eating helps you grow big.
George Washington and the Cherry Tree. It’s ironic that this story about telling the truth is actually a lie. Most historians believe it never happened. Still, the anecdote has been a truthy inspiration for 200 years. When George was about six years old, he cut down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When his father confronted him, George said, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it.” To which George’s dad responded, “Your honesty is worth more than a thousand cherry trees.” George became a hero by telling the truth, even when he had done something wrong.
In Dr. Lee’s studies, children responded more favorably to the Cherry Tree lesson than to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which ends with severe punishment for the liar. Believe it or not, Aesop’s fable actually made children more likely to lie. Children connected lying with punishment, and so kids just got better at hiding their lying, rather than learning to tell the truth.
A Few Truthful Tips
Never punish your child for telling the truth, even if he/she has done something wrong. Otherwise, your child will learn that hiding the truth, not honesty, is the best policy. That said, in an appropriate and calm manner, attend to the wrong doing separately.
If you promise you won’t get mad if they tell you the truth, don’t get mad (no matter how mad you might be). So your five-year-old has flushed your wallet down the toilet and is brave enough to tell you. This is tricky, but it’s even more tricky if your kids see that you have lied to them about your promise.
Praise them when they do it right! As with teaching any value, positive reinforcement works better than criticism. Notice when your children have had the courage to tell the truth and praise them for it.