The following is some guidance that we provided to a mother of a 7-year-old child who was having difficulty fessing up to a misdeed.

Q. Our 4-year-old son's favorite truck was nowhere to be found.  It eventually "turned up" under his 7-year-old brother Jay's bed.  Jay denied taking the toy - but we believe that he is not telling the truth.  It is not the first time that this has happened.  We are concerned about his lying, and don't know how to handle it.  Do you have suggestions?

A. Few things upset parents more than their child lying and then sticking to it! There is no single reason that children lie, but there are some general points that may provide some guidance.

Young children, particularly 5 years and under, have to develop the ability to understand the truth and do the right thing. They must learn what is right and what is wrong and come to understand the importance of telling the truth. They are gradually developing their sense of morality and their sense of guilt about actions that go against their ideas of right and wrong.

Younger children also believe what they want to believe. When they are not truthful, they may be telling a story that they believe is truthful because they have convinced themselves. Although it is a gradual process, by 5 or 6 years of age, children can be expected to have mastered sufficiently these developmental tasks so that they have a strong sense of conscience and are able to tell the truth. But there are few children who don't fall off the honesty wagon. Why is that?

Telling the truth: Every adult knows that there are times when he or she struggles about whether to tell the truth, if even for an instant. There is a balance of forces within children and adults that affect each and every decision about truth telling.

The strongest factor on the side of telling the truth is our inner guide, our conscience, and its major enforcement power: its ability to make us feel guilty if we violate what it asks of us. Another reason to tell the truth is more pragmatic: We risk negative consequences when we misbehave. However, these reasons to do the right thing are opposed by reasons not to do the right thing. There are always things to be gained if one breaks a rule of conscience.

In Jay's situation, his story, had it been successful, would have spared him embarrassment as well as consequences, such as your disapproval or withdrawal of privileges. There may have been other possible motivations for his misbehavior. For example, he might not want to give his younger brother the satisfaction of seeing him pay the consequence for a deed that he may have felt was a justified retaliation for injustices his brother inflicted on him. There is always a trade-off between telling the truth and telling a story, obeying conscience and disobeying it.

Importance of conscience: There will always be situations when temptations are strong. What helps someone do the right thing in such situations? Concern about consequences generally pales in comparison to the importance of the inner voice of conscience, with its ability to reward with pride for obeying its requests and punish with guilt for transgressions. Guilt is a wonderful thing, when we feel it for the right reasons. Without it, we'd be lost in the press of our desires and impulses.

Being truthful, accepting responsibility:
We suggest a balanced approach for helping Jay with his storytelling. On one hand, you should inform him that you know he is not telling the truth. He should receive a consequence. For some sensitive children, simply conveying your disappointment will be enough. For others, temporarily removing a privilege, such as time at the computer, will help make the point.

The other part of a balanced approach involves collaborating with Jay. He did not just disappoint you, he also disappointed himself. He did not just break your rule, he also broke his own. Therefore, we suggest that you discuss with him your certainty that he does not like to tell stories and that you are sorry that he disappointed himself.

You can say that there must be some reasons that he was unable to do what was right, both when he took the toy and when he was unable to fess up. Perhaps this will lead to his telling you about why he was so tempted. He might feel, for example, that his younger brother gets to use his toys unfairly and that you would be very angry if he admitted he had taken the truck. Through this discussion, you can find ways to dignify his concerns, even if you don't agree with them, and discuss other ways that he could address or manage these concerns while still doing the right thing.

The best way to help Jay learn to obey his own sense of right and wrong is to provide a consistent example of acting honestly and ethically. Children learn some from what they are told, some from rewards and consequences, but mostly from how they are treated and what they see and feel about their parents.

Becoming comfortably and consistently honest is not easy, and many adults continue to work on this task. Approach Jay in a balanced way, provide consistent modeling for doing the right thing, and have every confidence that he will follow in your footsteps.

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