This is the first in a 2 part series on teaching honesty.
“Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.”
As a writer of books that teach kids to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I should be encouraged or outraged by this statement from NurtureShock, an enlightening book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The book describes study after study that shows how conventional wisdom on raising good kids is seriously flawed.
According to studies, parents value honesty in their kids above all other character traits, but 96% of kids lie. In fact, conventional wisdom around teaching honesty actually encourages more lying.
In this, Part 1, we’ll look at some highlights from NurtureShock about how parents perpetuate lying in their kids. In Part 2, we’ll look at how to teach kids honesty more effectively.
Should parents ignore lying?
Parents often don’t correct young children when they lie, taking advice from parenting websites that say kids will “grow out of it”. The thinking is that young kids don’t know the difference between truth and lying enough to understand what honesty is.
According to the experts cited in NurtureShock, lying actually takes more intelligence and emotional maturity than being honest. Think about it– kids have to recognize the truth and then come up with an alternate explanation. That’s a two step process compared to blurting out what really happened. By age four, most kids lie regularly and understand what they are doing.
Why do children lie?
Not surprisingly, the first lies kids tell are to keep themselves out of trouble, to avoid punishment. From an early age kids will just blurt, “I didn’t do it!” —even if you saw them do it. In a kid’s mind, self preservation trumps honesty.
Lying damages self-esteem
Some parents think they should ignore the lie to protect the child’s self esteem. Yet experts state that being dishonest is in direct opposition to a child’s self-concept that they are a good child. Self esteem comes from knowing you can and do make choices that are in line with your values– values that include honesty. Lying therefore damages self esteem, whether or not a parent makes an issue of dishonesty with the child. (See our “What is self esteem” page for more on the link between making honest choices and self esteem and self confidence.)
Ignoring lying encourages more lying
Studies show that if a child commits a transgression and lies to cover it up, most of the time parents address the original transgression, but say nothing of the lie. This teaches kids that if they attempt a lie and get caught in it, they’ve haven’t lost anything—they might as well give dishonesty a try. If the lying works, kids will keep doing it.
Experts reveal, while lying is to be expected (kids don’t want to get in trouble), it should not be ignored. Why? Because kids learn early whether lying serves them better than honesty. If a child gets away with lying when she is young, it sets up a pattern for when she is older. According to Bronson and Merryman, “If lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, she’ll stick with it. About one-third of kids do—and if they’re still lying at seven, then it seems likely to continue.”
Harsh punishments make kids better liars
Harsher punishments don’t reduce lying. They increase it! Kids who fear a strict punishment will learn to become more convincing liars, and they’ll stick with the lie instead of owning up to the truth. Why? Once again, self preservation trumps honesty. The harsher the punishment, the more kids will stick to their lie to avoid the punishment.
So harsh punishments aren’t the answer. Ignoring lies aren’t the answer. How can a parent raise honest kids?
In part 2, we’ll cover strategies for teaching honesty and building good traits. Go to Part 2