Modeling Parental Honesty

Are You a Liar?

You probably don’t think of yourself as a liar. However, the chances are you lied (or stretched the truth to the breaking point) this very day – either to someone outside your home or to someone in your family.  Statistics show that the average person lies about twice a day. Kids average lying about three times a day. Ninety-six percent of the people in a Reader’s Digest poll admitted to lying…most of the time to family and friends.

In a paradoxical culture where lying is considered wrong, our politicians probably set the curve on these statistics yet are often rewarded with another term in office. Stretching the truth is often practiced, but seldom punished. Unfortunately, this acceptance happens even in communications with friends – we knew she was not being truthful, but we didn’t question her or say anything about it. This happens frequently. Consequently, it’s sometimes hard to hold the line about why truth matters…with your children or with others around you.

Most people lie when telling the truth will be a problem…either for themselves or for someone around them. The first time a child tells a lie and gets away with it, he/she starts to discover that this may be a handy tool to have around. 

Why Children Lie

Lying is often a secondary result of breaking the rules. If we didn’t do or say something unacceptable in the first place, we wouldn’t need to lie about it now.  When people don’t really consider the consequences of their original mistake, it is unlikely that they will consider the consequences of the lie they just told to cover for things.

Adolescents lie most often about money, drugs/alcohol, sex, friends, dating, and parties. One study found that lying begins in early childhood and is perfected by adolescence. The issues that teens lie about are almost all related to independence. Adolescents perfect lying as a way to practice living outside parental control…I’m going to meet John (knowing full well that he is going to meet the new girlfriend). Yes, parents need to trust their kids to tell the truth concerning these things, but at the same time they should realize that their children are, many times, motivated to do otherwise.

Reducing Lying by Children

One way to reduce this kind of lying is to make reasonable demands (established by the parents) and define reasonable expectations (mutually agreed with specific input from the child involved).

For example, if you complete your homework in study hall at school you may play outside when you get home.  The expectation and the reward are both defined ahead of time. This “performance agreement” will need to be re-visited from time to time as the child matures. For example, a 12-year-old will need more accountability than a 17-year-old. The idea is to maintain a clear understanding of expectations while honoring responsible independence.

Another helpful practice is to make sure you understand the facts and circumstances surrounding any plans that your children may be explaining to you. For instance, 12-year-olds should not be attending parties un-chaperoned by parents, and keep in mind that some parents are more trustworthy than others. Get to know the parents in your child’s circle of friends and learn their honesty standards. Even an innocuous 5th-grade sleepover can swerve off track if parents go to bed early and there happens to be older teen siblings around. Conversely, 17-year-olds may just need to keep you informed at planned intervals throughout the evening or over the weekend if they are out with friends.

Here’s a creative way to reduce lying, especially by young children. Set up two jars, one empty and one full of several dollars of quarters. When someone lies, a quarter goes from the full jar to the empty jar. Whatever’s left in the full jar at the end of the week or the month is the reward for telling the truth. Whatever goes into the lying jar must be donated to church or charity. Have the children feel the weight of the lying jar at the end of the week or month. This helps to teach them that their words carry weight. 

Helping Children Be Honest with Themselves

Children today encounter many idols throughout an average day that motivate them to be someone other than themselves. They see a young TV character say something cute, but impolite, to some adult and they want to “be cute,” too. They see an 18-year old rock star disrespect the people around him and quickly start to think… “that’s cool.” They witness sports stars covered in tattoos and, without much thinking, look forward to the time they can “cover up” in that way as well. Parents have a very difficult time changing a child’s thinking about these influences, because, in part, the child encounters many of these indoctrinations each and every week. So, what can a parent do to help their child become more of an independent thinker…in effect, being more honest with themselves and their own feelings?  

Parents can do three things:

Firstcreate more focus on the child’s personal interests. Talking to children, over a period of time (usually years), about things that are of interest to them helps the child get closer to their calling in life. As specifics are identified, connecting the child with events, activities and information help him/her flesh out their interests and begin to hone in on the one or two that are most important to them. We are either born with these interests or start to develop them at a very early age. So parents must put their antennae up and work with their children to bring these interests to even greater focus in the child’s life. The basic idea is to help the child be influenced by his/her personal interests, not the interests of another person.

Secondresearch, find and present positive role models to your children.  If some of these role models are in the child’s field of interest, so much the better. If your child wants to become a good tennis player, find college and professional tennis players who have led positive lives and are good people. Inform your child about them and help them learn more about this individual. The more your child becomes interested in someone like this, the more he/she will see the difference between “the good folks” and “the cool ones.”

Thirdhelp your child understand that they can accomplish something very important with their life.  Parents should help their children understand that if they 1) follow their interests, 2) treat others fairly and 3) make good choices day-to-day, their life can be important and fulfilling. By helping a child work to envision a personal future, the more important their day-to-day choices become and the more honest they will be with themselves as they pursue this goal.

Helping Children Be Honest with Others

When children feel good about themselves, it's much easier for them to be honest with others, especially the other children that they encounter each day. This “feel good feeling” has to be based in honesty as well. The parent should find one or more of the good qualities that the child has – good grades in school, always happy about things or a talented in drawing/art. Don’t be a lazy parent…dig in and identify those great qualities that your child possesses and compliment them on one of those…”Have a good day at school my smart little man…or my happy little boy…or my great little artist.” Make the compliments personal. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

One way to reduce this kind of lying is to make reasonable demands (established by the parents) and define reasonable expectations (mutually agreed with specific input from the child involved).

Your children need to trust you to understand when they make mistakes or poor choices. Children need to feel that they can talk to you about anything without immediately experiencing “the wrath of an upset parent” suddenly entering their life. Pave the way by telling them the truth about the poor choices you made at their age. Spend time in conversation about how they think they would handle some of the situations that you encountered.

Talking through “what if” scenarios is a simple way to practice problem solving and encourage open communications with your children. This is an excellent way for them to learn successful navigation through the adolescent world. Play “what if…” with them regularly. “What if you go to a party with friends, and you have to get a ride home from someone who has been drinking?” Explain what they should do in such an event. Make a list of scenarios to discuss in those teaching moments and your kids will develop responsible independence.

Parents are the Truth Models

Make no mistake about…the starting point for teaching honesty to your children is YOU. In order for children to learn how to practice honesty, and to understand the true benefits of doing so, they must see that you practice honesty in your life. Not just occasionally, but day in and day out. 

First of all, they must see that you are always honest with them…that you “tell it like it is” with a little love thrown in.  That if you say you will do something, you will do it. That if you witness others being dishonest, you speak up about it…explaining why it is wrong and what type of problems this person is likely to have as a result of the lie that they have told. They must see that you are honest with your spouse, your fellow employees, your friends/neighbors and even with strangers that you encounter from time to time. As a parent, carrying the honesty torch is one of your most important responsibilities…in our opinion, it's your number one job.

Written By Heidi Densmore

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“The truth is more important than the facts.” Frank Lloyd Wright