Building The Foundation for An Ethical Life - Part II B

In Part I, we talked about how to promote honesty, not only in your child, but in your family as well. Now that you're set up for success, let's talk about what happens when your child does lie, as all children will inevitably do at one time or another.

First of all, let's distinguish three types of lies and what motivates our children to tell them.

* Fanciful storytelling. One kind of "lie" is the fanciful storytelling that is so common among younger children. For example "Mommy, we went to the zoo today with my class, and we got to ride on the elephants, and then one of the tigers got loose and chased us, but we were safe because we went to the zookeepers house and he fed us hot chocolate."

Motivation: The primary motivation of most children who tell fanciful stories, no matter what their age, is to get attention.

* Lying (Telling untruths). Another type of lie is when your child says something that's untrue when they know that it's untrue. For example, when they say "Yes, I ate my carrots" when in reality they fed them to the dog. Motivation: Children lie either to avoid punishment or because they lack the courage to approach the parent with the truth.

* Breaking agreements The final type of lie is when a child breaks an agreement. For example, a woman told me that her teenage son went with a group of friends in their car to a concert out on Long Island. A few minutes before he got home, one of the group called and asked if he'd gotten home safely, because he didn't ride back with them, but went with another group that she didn't know as well. He walked in a few minutes later, and she asked him how the concert was and he said fine. He never even mentioned coming home with the other group. When she confronted him on it, he said that the group he'd gone to the concert with had been drinking and driving recklessly, and he felt safer with the group he came home with. She checked with another mother, whose daughter confirmed that the group (excepting her son) had arrived drunk at the concert. While his reasoning was sound, he not only broke an agreement with her, he also withheld the truth from her.

Motivation: Agreements are broken for a couple of reasons -- either the child has forgotten the original agreement, or has chosen something different because of new information or a change in circumstances. When a child fails to tell a parent about the changed agreement, it's usually because he lacks the courage to do so for fear his parents will disapprove.

Helping our children to tell the truth instead of lying requires that we have a plan, and know ahead of time how we'll handle the different types of lying when they come up. Distinguishing the type of lie is the first step in helping children see the benefit to telling the truth.

How to handle fanciful storytelling:

It's important to distinguish between storytelling by young children and older children when we make decisions about how to handle this category of lying. For children who are in early elementary school, nursery or preschool, making up stories about imaginary friends, events or encounters is a natural part of their creative development, and should be treated accordingly. One mother's four year old had imaginary dogs (about 47 of them). One day, when she came into the living room, she found that her daughter had drawn all over herself with a magic marker. "Honey," she said, "The paper is for drawing on, not your skin." "I didn't do it," her daughter replied, "my dogs did!" "Well," replied the mother thoughtfully, "You have to be responsible for your dogs. Tell them they're not allowed to draw on anything but the paper." This mother correctly assessed that "lying" in this case was a part of her daughter's natural development. Rather than make an issue out of the "lie", she simply incorporated her daughter's fantasy play into her response. Making the child take responsibility for the dogs taught her child that she's not only responsible for herself, but for her imagination as well.

Sometimes children make up stories to get attention. One little boy came home after school and said "It was scary at school today. When we were out at recess, a man came into the schoolyard with a gun. He pointed it at all of us, and we ran inside." In instances like this, it's important that we take our children seriously. You might say something like "That does sound scary. Let's call your teacher, I need to find out what happened after you went inside." If your child is making it up, he will protest and ask you not to call his teacher. Should this happen, you might say something like "You know, sometimes when we've had a boring day, and we wish it had been more exciting, we add things that didn't really happen. It seems like that's kind-of what happened to you today." If you do this, you won't put your child in a position where he has to "save face". If he feels his "reputation" is on the line, it will only cause him to dig deeper into the story. Give him a way to gracefully extricate himself. Later, be sure to address the principle of telling the truth without going into the specific instance. Say something that conveys trust "Mommy takes you very seriously because I trust you. I believe what you tell me, and that's why it's very important to tell me when you're using your imagination, and when something really happened."

The older the child, the more concern is warranted with this type of lying. If a child or teenager weaves fantasy into many or all of their conversations, it may be important to have the child or teen evaluated to determine if they can actually distinguish reality from fantasy. There may be a psychological or physiological reason for this behavior that should be dealt with.

However, if your older child or teen occasionally engages in this type of lie, and it's clear that he is perfectly capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, then it's likely that he is seeking attention in an inappropriate manner. One way to handle this is by not giving him what he's after. Keep your reaction to the story minimal, a simple "I see, well that's interesting," should do it. Later, come back to your child and address the issue of attention getting. You might try saying something like "I wonder if you feel as though you're not getting enough of my attention sometimes. I thought maybe we could talk about different ways you could get my attention when you're feeling lonely or left out." While an occasional child might question your motive for bringing this subject up, it's more than likely that they will feel a sense of relief in having their feelings recognized, and in knowing that you want to address the issue. Sometimes the child will deny needing attention or having lonely feelings. That's o.k. Remember that the important thing is that your child hear your willingness to address this issue even if he's not comfortable talking about it yet.

In Part III, we'll discuss what happens when your child's lies are not simply part of her creative development.