Lies – How Children Learn to Tell the Truth
All households with young children experience those times when fact collides with fantasy, when things just have to be sorted out. Then, it goes without saying that we adults must lead by example, state our expectations and enforce limits.
Great, but just as telling the truth is part of growing up, make-believe is part of childhood. There are times when speaking the truth is no virtue – consider the child who tells Aunt Ruth that her nose is too big, and you’ll know what I mean. We all shade the truth sometimes, tell “white lies,” use silence as a screen, or simply stretch the facts. To dismiss a child’s story as “a lie” may be to miss the process through which the child is going. Where is truth important, where is something less than the truth in fact okay, and how do we all learn these distinctions?
I recently asked Marissa, who is five, “Why do people lie?” Her first response was “I don’t know.” However, after being reassured that there was no right answer, she declared that the number one reason was to avoid getting into trouble. Then she posited that lying could actually produce trouble. Finally she said that there are times when nobody finds out about the lie. And then she leaned close to whisper, “But I know the truth.”
When asked if adults ever lie, Marissa hesitated only a moment before replying with a frown, “I’m sure they do sometimes. But I think they must be better at it than kids ’cause I don’t know they’re doin’ it.” Thus Marissa expects the truth from adults in her life and, to my knowledge, she has not been disappointed.
Experts generally agree that between the ages of four and six children wade into the process of sorting fact from fiction. Observant of truth and deception in others, they develop and test their own theories. How we adults respond to each strategy is important because it sets the tone for future incidents and establishes boundaries within which our children (or for nannies, our charges) can learn to work.
First it seems that children test the boundaries set by the adults around them. You know this test: the child, fully aware that you are watching, snitches the last cookie on the plate and then denies having done so. She looks at you expectantly, awaiting your reaction. The ball is in your court. If you manage well, she’ll probably smile, apologize and move on. If you overreact or are too lenient, the smile will be a hidden one, and you will not have had the last of it.
In our group, the basic philosophy was declared early on: being truthful and facing the consequences is better than lies and cover-up. The latter bring on disciplinary action and damage the trust I place in them as individuals. As eight-year-old Alex puts it, “The look of disappointment on your face is the worst thing to me. I’d rather lose computer privileges or go to my room than see you looking so sad.” Each child here has also observed a sibling in a predicament, and this, too, has served as a lesson. Certainly, talking about the subject from time to time when there is no immediate problem is helpful. Discussion can be sparked by a book you are all reading or by a television program or video. As with any value that we hope to instill in children, repetition, example and clear expectations are key.
And Moving On
Along with clear expectations and appropriate discipline comes the ability to move beyond the incident. I usually talk to the child about the particular behavior before she “pays the price” as well as immediately afterward. By then, clearing the air is as important as was catching the initial infraction. I reassure the child that I will continue to love her no matter what she does, but I remind her that it is my responsibility to see her through safely. We have a hug or a cuddle and then call for a “New Day.” This process has worked well for us, and I’m pleased with the progress that the children have made.
Solving the Mystery
The child’s age and the seriousness of the offense must dictate the weight of your response. This is especially important when you have children of different ages in the household. They may comparison shop, bargaining for a more comfortable outcome based on your treatment of a sibling.
Here is where consistency and clear parameters come into play.
If you’ve already been through this, you’re thinking, “What about the times when you don’t see what’s happened at all, and each child has a different version. What do you do then?” Sorry, no easy answers, but here’s what’s worked for me.
First you must calm everyone down. Accusations and finger-pointing can make the pot boil over. Then, act like a good detective. Get each child’s view of the situation without interruption from anyone else, including you. It may mean that each of the children has to be questioned separately. Get your radar tuned up. Look at each child carefully, consider body language and emotional state. Particularly ask each child to look at you directly, eye-to-eye. Ask open-ended questions, and have them repeat parts of their story. You are looking for discrepancies in the sequence of events and how much each child has actually witnessed.
This process alone can elicit a confession, although older children may expect to hang tough -“deny, deny, deny”- and come out clean. There have been plenty of times when I’ve sorted out all the shaky testimony and could not arrive at an absolute verdict. It’s then that I’ve given my speech about trust, truth, and deception. I clearly express my sorrow and disappointment, saying that everyone will have to share in the consequences. Having reached the end of the game, someone almost always ‘fesses up.
And the Deeper Secret
My real secret lies in knowing these children very well. Cassie, the oldest at 11, has always been amazing at putting together a falsehood. Her technique relies heavily on misdirection through proliferation of irrelevant details. A person could get caught up in sifting through the junk. Only by going over the specifics of her narrative can I find the holes in it.
In contrast, Alec, our 8 year old, is not such a great liar. Don’t get me wrong, he can tell a whopper of a story and get me involved in it. But he can’t look me in the eye at the same time. When he tries, his expression gets all goofy, and he either starts to laugh or gives up and tells the truth.
Marissa, our sweet kindergartener, is right in the middle of sorting out her fantasies from her facts. She tells a simple, hopefully believable story, but when she knows you’ll be disappointed in her if it’s not the truth, she gives up. It’s more important to her to have you think well of her than to get away with something.
Fantasies and fictions have their place in our lives. We sometimes long for make-believe, and we enjoy it under the proper circumstances. But when it comes to the troubles of daily life, the truth must take center stage. Children need to know that we expect the truth from them, and they should expect nothing less from us.