Parenting Tips: How to encourage Truth-Telling and discourage Lying.

One day when I was about seven, I over heard my mother talking to the Fuller Brush salesman at the door. Usually my mother wore a dress but today was cleaning day so she was wearing pants. My mother was a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. She was born in Canada and spoke perfectly good English. She said to him in a quasi Italian accent, “I’ma justa the cleaning lady. The lady of the house she no at home.”

I could not believe my mother was lying! She always told us to tell the truth. I learned later that she was not comfortable dealing with assertive sales people.

Modeling.

The most powerful way to teach children anything is to model it. When children see and experience their parents telling the truth and admitting when they have lied, they are more likely to do the same. Many a parent will lie to other people, on the phone or in person, not realizing their child is witnessing it. Parents ask their children to lie for them “Tell who ever it is that I’m not at home.” Some parents use their children to help them smuggle articles across the border. Many people will not admit that they lied, either to a child, or to anyone else.

Do not set your children up to lie.

I remember very clearly the day my mother caught me ‘smoking’. I was six. My friend and I had been playing over at her house. We had found a half a package of cigarettes in the garbage can. I can’t say we smoked them but we lit them and pretended to smoke. When I came home my mother asked me the question, “Have you been smoking?” I don’t remember if I lied, but I probably did. I didn’t know that she could smell the smoke on me. She knew I’d been smoking yet she asked me if I had. I don’t remember being punished but I was never allowed to play with that friend again.

What stands out for me was feeling bewildered. ‘How did she know?’ For a while after that I believed my mother knew everything that I did, no matter where I was.

We often set our children up to lie. We often already know that they have done something they should not have done or not done something they should have done. Yet we ask them about it anyway.  Why? Usually to test them. Children will often lie or go mute in order to avoid getting into trouble. They will lie to avoid their parent’s disapproval. They will lie to avoid their parent’s anger.

Set your children up to tell the truth.

If you know your child has done something wrong, tell them about it using matter-of-fact statements. Avoid questions. Your child is more likely to admit to the truth. This way, you are more likely to get the behaviour you want – truth telling – than if you asked a question or interrogated.

Example 1: I smell smoke in your hair. Tell me about how you got smoke in your hair.

Example 2: I see your bike is wet. I told you not to ride out in the rain. Tell me about it.

Example 3: I heard you on the phone to your friend. You told her where you went last weekend. I didn’t know about this. I’d like to hear about it.

When you put the facts to children in a matter-of-fact way they are more likely to admit what they have done. They know you already know, so there is no point in lying.

Reinforce truth telling.

When your children tell you the truth acknowledge it.

Examples:

Thank you for telling the truth.

It takes courage to admit the truth.

Even though it was difficult, you had the courage to tell the truth.

I admire you for being honest.

Wow! You are brave to tell the truth.

I appreciate that you told me the truth.

I like a person who has the guts to say it like it is!

Create an environment in which it is safe to tell the truth.

Most people will tell the truth if they are not afraid. Children, especially, will lie if they are afraid. They are very sensitive to their parent’s tone of voice and facial expressions. When children feel interrogated, they get scared. Without even knowing why, they are more likely to lie or say nothing at all.

Question children matter-of-factly.

Question children in order to clarify.

Question children with a concern for the safety of themselves and others.

Focus on the issue.

“Now what are we going to do about this ……….?”

Keep your focus on the problematic behaviour.  Avoid attacking a child’s character. It is crucial to tell children they are OK, but what they have done was wrong or was a mistake. They are more likely to tell the truth if you, their parent, do not think they are bad.

Have fair consequences for wrongdoing.

Children learn from consequences. Children are very sensitive to justice. If the consequences fit the misbehaviour and are carried out in a firm manner, children will accept the consequences and learn from them. However, if the consequences are unfair and/or they carried out harshly, children may shift their focus from learning what to do or what not to do, to learning how not to get caught.

Ignore lying if possible.

The less attention paid to lying the better.

One time when my children were about four and six, I noticed that one of the vinyl covered chairs had a small cut in it. I asked both boys to come into the kitchen. I showed them the cut chair and asked if either of them knew how this had happened. Both denied doing it and denied any knowledge of who might have done it. I thanked them both for telling the truth even though I knew that one of them was lying. I wanted to acknowledge the one who was telling the truth. I wanted the one who was telling the truth to feel good about himself. Both children went off to play. About an hour later my eldest son came into the kitchen looking rather sheepish. He admitted to cutting the chair. I told him he was brave to come forward and admit the truth. I ignored that he had lied. I then focused on the chair and talked about how to fix it. He and I worked together to repair the chair.

If he had not ‘come clean’ I would have invited them both to help me repair the chair. Giving them a clear message that it is not ok to damage the furniture.

Be approachable.

There are times when your child needs to tell you the truth. Do not discourage your children from feeling comfortable to approach you.

A father was putting his 6-year-old son to bed. After they finished the story the boy blurted out what happened to him at daycare that afternoon. He said another boy, (also age 6) asked him to play ‘Dickiebum’ a ‘game’ that he had never played before. He said he did not like it and did not want to return to the daycare again. Although shocked and concerned the father listened attentively to his son. He asked him questions in a matter-of-fact way about what happened, who did what to whom, if he had told the person in charge of the daycare, etc. Fortunately for this boy, his father was open to hearing disturbing information and dealt with the issue calmly and appropriately.

At another time the father taught his son how to get out of situations that he did not want to be involved in.

Listen attentively if your child (or another child) comes to you with information about what someone else (child or adult) is doing. Clarify the situation with interest, avoiding irritation or blame. Children  often do not understand what was going on so they are not able to explain clearly. You may even want to check it out for yourself to be sure. Your child, or someone else, may need protection.

How to Handle Truths that are difficult to hear.

Sometimes children tell their parents things that parents really do not want to hear. Children are often confused because they get a double message from parents. Parents tell them to tell the truth, but when they do, the parents may not believe them , may get angry or may not respond appropriately.

A child may tell you he deliberately slammed the door on the kitten to see what would happen and he was surprised when it died. A child may tell you that your neighbour touched him in a funny way.  A child may tell you she stole money from your wallet.

If your child tells you a truth that is difficult for you to hear, avoid showing your child that you are alarmed. Show them that you are interested. Thank the child for telling the truth. Without leading the child, find out all that you can about what happened, and finally – deal with it appropriately. At an appropriate time, educate your child about the issue, whatever it is.

If you’re really taken aback, tell your child you need time to think about what they told you and you will talk to them later about it. Then consult with someone who has wisdom to help you deal with it.

In conclusion, the best way to teach honesty is to model it for children. The more children experience the value of truth-telling and the good feelings that come from truth-telling the less they will lie. The more parents avoid focusing on lying [the behaviour they don’t want] and create safety for truth telling [the behaviour they want] the more their children will tell the truth.

Finally, be open to the truth when you get it. Handle situations with dignity and respect when your children are truthful.

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