Cultivate Honesty — By Bart Theriot

Author: Bart Theriot

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the role of honesty in parenting and early child development in a three-part blog post entitled “From Netflix to Depression”.  In conversations I have had over the last few years with parents, it has become clear that this topic is worthy of its own post.  Whether you’re dealing with dishonesty at home, or you’ve got this all figured out, it is never a waste of time to think about honesty.

Have you ever noticed that you can never tell just one lie?  Even the smallest half-truths inevitably bounce back to you, forcing a sour regurgitation of your own contrived facts.  Sometimes, that little lie asks your friends, family or colleagues to lie along with you in order to maintain the tangled web. They may be forced to repeat that process as well. Then there’s the follow up lie you tell yourself.  Don’t forget that one.  Your rationalization about the situation and attempt to reconcile within yourself, why you chose to fabricate things in the first place.

None of that feels good to anyone, yet somehow in the moment, the lie seems easiest.  I wonder about the formative nature of childhood lies, which are usually about simple avoidance.  A child wants to bypass the blame and the accompanying consequences, be they embarassment, discomfort or other penalty.  A lie may seem like it might wash the entire situation away.  A four-year-old’s lie might actually do just that, either because parents believe it or because they choose to let the matter pass by without reaction.   And, like most things that aren’t good for us, the more we lie, the more comfortable it becomes.

Over time, the lying habit works its way into other scenarios beyond just avoidance.  We lie to get what we want.  We lie to win an argument. We lie to pretend we know something we think we should know.  We lie when we are late.  We lie to get out of responsibilities. We lie even when we make honest mistakes.  We lie to save others from disappointment.  We embellish, exaggerate and pass “little white lies”, all of which we tell ourselves are harmless.  The truth is that, no matter who else is involved or whether we are found out, every lie is personally harmful, so it is never a victimless crime.

These are not habits of the adults we hope our children will become, but the damage will be done long before adulthood if we don’t intervene far earlier than that.  For example, in my three-part blog post I detailed the difficulties confronting teens and young adults.  Anxiety, depression and social/emotional struggles have become standard experiences in these age groups.  You will be your child’s best partner in supporting their navigation through dark waters.  If dishonesty is in the boat along side you, you might not even know of your child’s struggles until it is too late.

Having worked with hundreds of parents and young children, I’ve learned that a child’s habit of lying is a direct result of parenting. Some children might be more predisposed to dishonesty than others as a social practice, but a parent’s modeled example and their response or lack thereof apply the heaviest weight.  Let’s consider a few typical, hypothetical scenarios and use them as practice for the real thing. First, let’s talk about situations where we might inadvertently encourage our children to lie.

You might be familiar with the phrase “Those who cannot handle the truth should prepare to be lied to.”  That doesn’t just mean that you have a tendency to freak out over small issues.  It can also mean that your interactions actually encourage your child to lie.  This often the reason for a common introduction to lying in a child’s life.  It happens so simply, it is easy to miss.  For example, do you ask your child “What’s wrong?”  It is a phrase we all use without really stopping to consider what it implies.  However, the implication is clear.  There must be something wrong.

When the most important person in your child’s life asks “What’s wrong?” this is not such a simple throw away moment.  She may think, “If mom is asking, maybe there should be something wrong.”  Or “Nothing is wrong right now, but I’d like to get some more interaction with my mom or dad so I should say yes.” Or “Something is wrong, but the last time I said yes, mom or dad overreacted.”  Lots of children want to please their parents and sometimes that means saying what they think we want to hear (even if it is not true).  If asked the question enough times, your child may learn to automatically share “what is wrong” before she is even asked -since this seems to be the most important thing. Whether we call this fabrication, exaggeration or embellishment, this is a form of lying that can easily work its way into every part of a human being’s life. So what to do?

Simple word choice can go a long way, here.  As they say, “Don’t lead the witness.”  Even if you are certain something is wrong, let your child be the one to judge it first.  Instead of “What’s wrong?” try “How are you?” or “How’s it going?”  Be mindful of your tone, since that can undercut even the most positive phrasing.  There’s also a caveat here that might completely negate word choice.  It is your transaction history.  If your child is used to hearing negative judgements from you as the basis for conversations, she’ll assume that’s what you want to hear regardless of the words you use. This is where the introspective part of intentional parenting comes in (also explained in From Netflix to Depression Part III).  It may turn out that you’ve been leading the witness all day, everyday, since birth.  If you find this to be the case, address that issue first or your efforts to focus on the positive may seem inauthentic.  Children rarely miss the difference between what we do and what we say.

What about the avoidance lie?  We’ve all seen those America’s Funniest Home Videos (Or I guess its just Youtube or Instagram now) where the toddler sits on the floor covered head to toe in chocolate, holding the jar of chocolate sauce and the parent asks “Did you eat the chocolate?” and the child innocently responds “No.”  So cute, right?  “Likes” galore.  That is normal, healthy experimentation with communication.  Benign enough to let it pass by quietly.  Just clean the kid up and move on, but note this instinct for next time, because another will most assuredly come.

It is the next incidents upon which you should act.  As long as the child can understand what happened (and studies show that even infants can comprehend good and bad), you owe it to his or her future self to take the reinforcing opportunity you have been given. Catching your child in a lie may be uncomfortable for both of you and that’s exactly how it should feel when you do things you shouldn’t.  However, it is a much easier experience for everyone when it happens while they are young. Lean into that feeling not as a punishment, but as a logical consequence. Then, when the child admits the truth (and this is a crucial point), try to help them acknowledge the drastic difference between the feelings of stress, shame, embarrassment or sadness of the lie and the comfort, relief and even the pride of telling the truth. 

When it comes to raising a child, I love a good follow up.  In fact, I approach most situations, especially disciplinary ones, assuming that I’ll get a chance to revisit things down the road.  Sometimes, for me at least, that follow up is an apology for messing up the first time.  However, when you are really trying to instill crucial concepts in your child, multiple but brief experiences can be more effective in creating understanding and buy-in than one seminal event.

When you do initially wade into the cross-examination of the lie, always be precise, emotionally calm and Socratic.   Stick to what you know as facts.  Instead of assuming motivation, find a way for your child to be the one to reveal it.  This is not as simple as asking them “Why?”  When faced with that question, children usually respond with “I dunno”, often shrugged or mumbled, sheepishly, beneath downcast eyes.  That answer always works against parents for three reasons.  1. The child may not actually have a reason for what they said or did and even if they do, they are unable or do not want to articulate it.  2. We receive no further information upon which to continue the interaction and 3. Because if we end up forcing the child to come up with a valid response, we’ve walked them into another lie.

As you can see, ferreting out the lie and handling it in collaboration with the child can be a virtual minefield for parents. Knowing you’ll get another crack at it allows you to start the conversation with a clear exit plan.  You can pull that rip cord as quickly or as late as you need.  So when the lie has been revealed and whether things went how you wanted them to or not, there is no need to overdo it.  Don’t pack all your energy and words into the closure of this moment. Tell yourself there will be another chance to bring it up.  For now, bringing things out into the open has been the main objective and you did it.  Take the win.

Like most effective parenting practices, cultivating honesty should be treated like a marathon.  One where the finish line doesn’t show up until well into adulthood.  It is an ongoing dialogue, in which progress is only revealed through a comparison of past and present experience.  Instagram loves a good “How it started Vs. How its going.”

Finding a place in the middle might be the best policy in the short run.  Especially if you find yourself already dug in with your child.  A history of heated conflict over dishonesty can be just problematic as having no history of cultivated honesty at all.  A parent in either case is going to find it equally hard to expect the truth as to accept it when it is given.  This is the exact situation we are trying to avoid, because success in the challenges all parents must face (and our ability to support our children through theirs) will be largely determined by the strength of honesty we share.

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