by Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D.
Eventually, most parents are faced with a child they know is lying. While the temptation to demand the truth may be great, experts caution that confrontation is usually not the best way to help children understand the value of truth.
Build a foundation for Truth
Jena, age three, likes to talk with her magic genie on the decorative play telephone in the living room. Is it a lie -- or just imagination -- when Mom hears Jena telling other children what the genie has to say? "At this stage, children often don't distinguish between reality and fantasy," said Dr. Wayne Fleisig, a child and family psychologist. But parents can begin teaching the difference between truth and imagination. "When we watch Sesame Street with our three-year-old, we ask her, 'Is Big Bird real?' 'No,' she replies. She already understands that the Cookie Monster and Big Bird are not real. So, we're laying a foundation for future truth telling."
Model the Truth
"It's important for parents to model the truth," said Dr. Martin, a child psychologist. If a friend calls and invites you to a party and you don't want to attend, say, 'I'll have to ask my spouse and get back with you.' -- especially if a child is listening." Don't say, "We're going out of town," when the child knows it's not true. You can always call the friend back later and provide a diplomatic excuse. "Children don't understand white lies as a form of diplomacy," Dr. Keller explained.
Role Play the Truth
A six-year-old had been scolded severely on several occasions for getting out of bed. When his mom took him to the pediatrician, explaining that the child's right arm could not move, he remained silent while tightly clutching his teddy bear. Mom was asked to leave the room. "What happened to your arm?" the doctor inquired again. The boy shrugged. So, the doctor asked him, "Did anything happen last night to your bear?" The boy replied, "Yes, he jumped out of bed and hurt his arm." In this case, we accept the child's lie because it's how he dealt with "doing the wrong thing," Dr. Charles Gordon, pediatrician, explained.
Providing Opportunity for Truth
But sometimes the situation is serious and it's important to know the truth. Take the case of Daniel, age 11. He had taken $210 that he found in an envelope sandwiched between two books on a shelf in a neighbor's spare bedroom. he didn't steal it to be mean. After all, these neighbors were always very kind to him.
"I understand why you took the money, Daniel," began Tom, the neighbor. "You weren't trying to hurt anyone. You just wanted to buy yourself some nice things. Isn't that right?"
Daniel had been denying the whole thing. At this point, however, he shrugged slightly. Tom took the shrug as a signal that Daniel was ready to confess. "So, Daniel, I have only one more question for you, and then I promise -- after this question, I won't ask you anything more: Is any of the money left, or did you spend it all?"
Daniel blurted out, "There's $130 left." he handed Tom the crumpled bills stashed in his pocket.
Tom managed to get the truth by empathizing with Daniel. He provided a reasonable rationale why the child would have taken the money without condoning the behavior.
Teach Acceptance and Values
"Most children who lie a lot are afraid to tell the truth; they are afraid of disapproval," said Dr. Geraldine Downey, a psychology professor. "Children are much more likely to tell the truth when they get the main message, 'You won't be rejected.' You can be disapproving of the behavior but not the 'person.'"
"We're not giving kids the inner resources they need," said Dr. David Myers, a psychologist and author of Hurtful Parenting. "A child has to absorb our values through in-depth talking and sharing of value-based experiences day in and day out."
Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D., is an online college professor, licensed private investigator, and the author of Police Communication in Traffic Stops, Coping with Difficult Teachers, The New Time Manager, the musical, "Remember Idora," and Easy Words: An Easy Way to Learn New Words. Dr. Woodhull is available for consultations, seminars, in-house training, and speaking engagements and can be reached at (352) 327-3665.