Honesty is not the black-and-white topic we learned about in after-school specials growing up. It is actually really complex and abstract once you throw intentions, compassion, passivity, and self-awareness in the mix. It will take conversations, role-modeling and accountability for kids to navigate, and the conversations will evolve as they get older and situations grow more complex. When kids are young, it can feel like a lie to say something to make someone feel good, and not feel like a lie to tell a tall, entertaining story. Their emotional perception of a situation may be factually inaccurate, but true to their experience. As they get older, should they tell the truth even if it sells a friend out? Should they lie to get someone off their back? We tend to send pretty mixed signals to our children, most of which are unavoidable. So how do we teach them?
First, getting caught is always the best thing for the child! Trust, but verify anything you get a sneaking suspicion about. The more often a child lies without being discovered, the easier it becomes to lie and the harder it is for them to sort the truth from the alternate story. When they are caught, they are more likely to assume they will get caught the next time and it becomes a deterrent.
Whenever they are caught red-handed in a self-serving lie, they need immediate and proportionate consequences. They need to feel the significance of it. The act of lying is usually a bigger transgression than the act they are trying to cover up and the consequences should indicate that. They should receive consequences for the initial misbehavior, and then additional consequences for the lie.
When the situations are gray, harsh consequences may not be appropriate, but softer, logical and natural consequences might be in order. If a child doesn’t have the strength to be honest and stand up to a friend, maybe they shouldn’t be hanging out with that friend until they’ve developed more courage. If a child tells lots of tall tales, then folks are likely not to believe a truly amazing story, and when that happens, you can gently connect the dots for them.
Lastly, you will need to be a role model and discuss your choices with them. Are you willing to call them in sick to school when they’re not? Have they seen you fib to a policeman when you have been pulled over or to a friend when you want to avoid a situation? Do the lies that you tell show compassion for others or do they save you from inconvenience? Do they fit your code of ethics or do they allow you to avoid consequences? This is worth pondering because your kids will notice, even if you don’t.
There are layers and it’s complex, so talk it through and ask them to hold you accountable too, as they get older. It’s a great opportunity to share your values and pass on your beliefs.