Most parents worry at one time or another about their child’s honesty. One reason parent’s worry is that many children do not seem to show remorse for lying. Rather, children may continue to insist upon their “story,” try to shift the blame, or deny feeling badly about the lie.
The reason children Lie: Most often, rather than indicating a lack of remorse, these denials of responsibility for lying result from children feeling excessive shame and guilt. Children, particularly those age six and under, often do not have the inner strength to face up to their considerable guilt and shame and admit the truth. However, over time, and with help, children will become better able to acknowledge their transgressions. They also will become better able to use their conscience to anticipate the effect of their actions and avoid committing future transgressions.
Responding to a lie: How can parents support a child’s ability to grow in their capacity to be truthful? First, parents should clearly disapprove when their child chooses to be dishonest. Parents should administer consequences that are appropriate to the child’s age, the infraction, and any mitigating circumstances. Sometimes, parental disappointment alone is a sufficient consequence. Next, without condoning their child’s choice to lie, parents can help their child begin to understand why he or she lied, convey their empathy with the situation that the child was trying to solve with the lie, and discuss different options for future occasions.
The importance of parental modeling: The most helpful thing that parents can do is teach their children by modeling honesty in their own words and actions. It is important that parents model a way of thinking about honesty in which dishonesty cannot be justified on the basis of its emotional or practical benefits. For example, anyone can obtain many benefits from distorting the truth, including decreasing feelings of embarrassment or guilt, presenting oneself more favorably to others, avoiding unpleasant situations, or simply obtaining something that is desired. If a parent conveys that lies are warranted under such circumstances, their child may also distort the truth if he or she determines that the circumstances justify such a distortion.
Parents need to model truthfulness even when their children are very young. Even toddlers can sense when a rule is being transgressed. Eventually, children will learn the specifics of expected behavior and may dimly remember past parental transgressions. Under these circumstances, children are left with shame about their parent and also about themselves, since their feelings about their parents always influence their sense about themselves.
True parental honesty is very difficult to achieve, because parents must address even subtle forms of dishonesty. The following vignettes illustrate common forms of subtle parental dishonesty:
Upon pick-up at school, five year-old Marjorie pressured her father to take her to her favorite fast food restaurant. Her father declined, saying that he was short on time. Actually, he had sufficient time. He refused the request because he felt that fast food was not healthy for Marjorie. He expected that Marjorie would protest less if he provided an excuse rather than the real reason.
Jill, age three, was resisting her parents’ attempts to wean her from her beloved pacifier. Jill's parents threw the pacifier away before leaving on a family trip. On the airplane, Jill asked for her pacifier. After a mock search, Jill’s mother said, “We must have left it at home.” Upon returning home, Jill requested her pacifier and was informed that it was lost.
Parents generally tell such "white lies" in order to accomplish a goal expeditiously, to avoid unpleasant conflict, or to spare their child’s feelings. Many parents also resort to white lies to avoid the discomfort they feel when their child is angry with them or the guilt they feel over causing their child discomfort.
Fred’s father rescinded his promise to take Fred to the park, deciding to do yard work instead. Although Fred’s father made the decision because the neatness of the garden was important to him, he told Fred that the work was necessary to keep the plants alive. Fred, a tender-hearted boy who loved plants, was much less likely to be angry with his father if the survival of the plants was dependent upon his father’s work. Fred’s father was trying to spare himself the guilt he would feel if his child was overtly disappointed and angry with him.
Children also witness parental dishonesties and white lies that do not involve them, since daily life provides many opportunities to choose honesty or dishonesty. For example, a trip to the grocery store is filled with such opportunities. Does a parent taste fruit (if not permitted by the store)? Does a parent enter express check out lines when their cart has one or two extra items? Does the parent inform personnel if undercharged or if responsible for breakage?
There are exceptions to the general guideline about strict parental honesty. One exception occurs when parents participate in cultural white lies, such as the Santa Claus story. This white lie is embedded in a rich cultural context and does not teach dishonesty. A child comes to understand that the Santa Claus fable is told out of love and for the child’s benefit. Another exception occurs in the unfortunate situation in which parents know about a reality that would confuse, frighten, and overwhelm their child. In these situations, children should be provided with enough information to enable them to make sense of what they perceive, but the rest of the details can be withheld, or, in the most extreme situations, even denied. An illustration would be withholding from a young child the information that a parent is terminally ill, if the death is not imminent.
No one can be straightforward and honest 100% of the time. Parents should aspire to be as honest as possible, and attempt to grow themselves by facing their own self-deceptions and rationalizations about dishonesty. Parents’ solid example of honesty is the most important gift that they can offer in support of their children’s positive moral development.
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