Teaching the Virtues: Honesty
Tall Tales as Facts
By Mary Dixon Lebeau
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Young children often make up stories and present the tales as facts. These tall tales – though technically lies in that they aren’t completely factual – are usually harmless, and often told as the child is developing his verbal skills and desires attention. You should point out the difference between the stories and reality, but these tales are generally harmless if received and accepted as such.
As children grow older, they often use similar stories to mask their own feeling of inadequacies or to define themselves in the eyes of their peers. These lies are often told about family (for example, the accountant’s child who tells friends her daddy is an astronaut) in order to impress friends and create a persona more desirable than what she perceives the reality to be. Although these untruths can be considered harmless, they should be corrected by the parent. We should also reinforce what the family values and considers important – including a strong character and honest dealings with other people.
While some children lie to bolster their images, others lie to avoid facing consequences. “Children are more likely to revert to dishonest behaviors if they fear being shamed,” says Bette J. Freedson, LICSW, LCSW and author of Relax and Learn Seminars: Skills for All Seasons. “Approval is a strong motivator. Non-shaming disapproval can help to teach, but shame dissolves strength of character and tends to elicit the behaviors you want to extinguish.”
“One of the biggest mistakes parents make is punishing children or overreacting when they tell us the truth,” agrees Christine Agro, founder of The Conscious Mom Guide and mother of a five year old. “It is so common for parents to ask their child to tell them the truth, then punish the child when he admits to an indiscretion. At a very early age, children need to know that it is safe to tell the truth and how we react to what they tell us sets the stage.”
Instead of overreacting, parents should emphasis the importance of honesty and how it is defined in the household. “Using words your child can understand, explain what honesty means in your family,” says Freedson. “Then continue to remind the child (using terminology like):
- “This is the way we do things in our family.”
- “We tell the truth.”
- “We do not take what is not ours.”
- “When you tell the truth, people will respect you and you will feel better about yourself.”
- “I might not like what you have to tell me, and there might be a consequence, but I will respect you for telling the truth.”