I once did an informal survey asking parents what they think the most important character trait is. I gave them a wide range of choices including responsibility, perseverance, empathy, compassion, gratitude and kindness and the majority of people responded with their top choice as honesty.
Just last week, I was giving a talk to secondary school students and when I asked what they thought was the most important character strength, they said honesty because without it, relationships can’t be built and having good relationships is a core part of a life of well-being.
So it seems pretty universal that students and parents alike value honesty. But the reality of the matter is that we have all lied. We value honesty but we have all fallen into the trap of lying.
For some, it may be something small like saying “I’m fine” when someone asks you how you are but you really don’t want to talk about your terrible day, but for others it may be something big like lying about taxes or infidelity.
And similarly for children, there is a range of intensity of lying. And my belief is what is more important than reprimanding them for lying and stopping the behaviour straight away is to understand their motivations and intentions behind them.
Did a child lie because he was scared of being punished if he were to tell the truth? Did she lie to her friend because the truth would hurt her feelings too much?
When it comes to looking at children and lying, I think it’s important to remember a number of things:
1) Age matters
Every child will have a different developmental path but generally children aged five and under are still exploring their world, using their imagination to create stories and therefore, the line between fact and fiction may be blurred. You may hear a kindergartener tell you “I took the airplane today and saw many trees” even though he was at school all day.
It may have been that his class was reading a book about a boy taking an airplane and there were trees in the picture. His story was merely his way of “experiencing” the book and retelling his experience. In such a situation, we can just gently ask whether his sharing is “a story” or “what really happened”. And most times from my experience, children are able to articulate which is it.
But the situation is very different if a teenager were to tell you “I went to school today” when he actually went to the movies with his friends. I would say, children aged eight and above are capable of differentiating fact from fiction and they should be held accountable for the things they say and do. When it comes to understanding “lying”, age matters.
2) Motivations and fears
But before we pounce on children for lying, it’s more important we understand their motivations behind why they lied. Is it because they wanted to get what they wanted and would do anything to get their way, including lying? Is it because they are more scared of the consequences of telling the truth than the ones from lying? Is it because she didn’t know how to process her feelings and lying is actually a form of denial? In order to address the situation appropriately, it’s important to know and understand the child. This is where communication and trust come in. If those things aren’t in place before a child lies, it’s difficult to even understand the child.
3) Lying affects relationships
When lying is intentional, it hurts those involved and it’s important to tell children that there are consequences to their actions. If you told mum that you didn’t eat candy when you did, when mum finds out, she will question whether you’ve lied before and it will affect her trust in you. So children have to understand that yes, lying is wrong in and of itself but also it’s wrong because it hurts other people and breaks trust between people.
4) Role models
And most of all, like all things, children need role models. If they hear parents say “I’ll come and watch your ballet performance” but then never show up or “I promise I’ll bring you to Disneyland on your birthday” but forget about it, it shows children that our words don’t carry weight. Children will do what you say but more so, they will do what you do. So we have to first be good role models.
As they say “honesty is the best policy” and this applies to us as it does to children. As we hold them to a high standard, let’s hold ourselves to it, too.
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