Building The Foundation for An Ethical Life - Part IV

A discussion on how to handle dishonesty would not be complete without looking at a type of dishonesty which is usually not differentiated from the others we've discussed thus far, but should be. We call the final type of lie-telling "breaking an agreement." I believe that the way in which we handle it when a child breaks an agreement should differ from the way in which we handle other types of dishonesty so that we can be more effective.

Children break agreements for a couple of reasons -- either the child has honestly forgotten part or all of the original agreement or she has chosen to do something different because of new information or a change in circumstances. This type of lie can be compounded when a child fails to tell you about the changed agreement. This usually happens because she lacks the courage to tell you for fear you will disapprove.

A woman told me that her teenage son went with a group of friends in their car to a concert. 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 failed to tell her right away.

As with most things we'd like to teach our children to do, teaching them not to break agreements first requires that we have a "code of honor" with regard to the times when we might break an agreement ourselves. Have you ever told your child you'd take him out for ice cream, and then didn't? Did you lie when you originally agreed to go? Of course not! You either forgot that you said you'd go or something else came up that was more pressing. In other words, you didn't lie, you simply broke your original agreement with him.

As adults, we break agreements all the time. The most effective way to teach our children to keep their agreements is by keeping ours. However, there will be times when it's not possible to keep an agreement. In that case, it's a good idea to follow a four step formula.

1) Admit you're breaking your original agreement and give the reason why. "I know I agreed to take you to the comic book store, and I'm not going to be able to keep that agreement today, it's just gotten too late." If you broke the agreement because you simply forgot you'd agreed to do something, say that to your child "I forgot, and I'm sorry."

2) Acknowledge your child's feelings. "I know you must be disappointed."

3) Set up an alternate day or time when you will be able to keep the agreement (if that's possible.) "How about if we go tomorrow instead."

4) Offer a compensation. "And to make up for breaking our original agreement, what if I buy you two comics instead of the one we talked about?"

It's also important to allow your child to express their feelings about the broken agreement. He may feel frustrated, annoyed, disappointed. This may be difficult because you may feel a little guilty or defensive about having broken the agreement with him. But when we listen honestly, without allowing our feelings to interfere, we help our children know we take our agreements seriously. This is important if we want them to take theirs seriously. In addition, it helps us forestall the "But you lied to me the other day when you said you'd take me to the comic book store and then you didn't!" syndrome. If a child feels that it's o.k. for you to "lie", then he'll feel that it's o.k. for him to "lie" as well.

When we have a procedure like the one above for breaking agreements, it makes it easier for the child when she breaks an agreement.

There will be times, however, when your child doesn't use the "code of honor", either because he is afraid to come to you, or because he honestly forgot the original agreement. When this happens, it's helpful to confront the child openly and directly. For example, in the scenario where the boy came home from the concert with a different group of people, the mother could have begun the conversation differently. Rather than saying "Did you have a nice time at the concert?" which almost presumes that the boy will hide the truth from her, she could have said "I hear you came home with a different group than we had agreed on." The more honest and direct we are with our children, the more honest and direct they will eventually be with us.

This first step - honest and direct confrontation, could also be handled by calling a family meeting. Family meetings are helpful tools which provide a neutral space for everyone to express their feelings, as well as their side of the story. Sometimes we're too worked up about an issue as a parent to be able to confront the child on the spot. When this happens, set a time and place for a meeting so that you can give yourself the opportunity to either calm down or think or both!

Once you've directly confronted the child, it's important to express your concern and request information about why the agreement was broken. You might want to say "I thought we had an agreement, and I'm concerned that you changed it without consulting me (or that you forgot). I'd like to hear what you have to say about this."

Next, it's important that you listen to your child's point of view. Listening is probably the most difficult part of this process, because when we're confronted with a child who broke an agreement, what we really want to do is convince the child about our side of the issue. We want her to understand that it's wrong to break agreements, that we were worried, angry, frustrated, etc. When we spend our time trying to make ourselves understood, however, rather than trying to understand an issue from our child's perspective, we end up blocking communication. Blocked communication, in turn, is not conducive to the child feeling as though we're approachable in the future. And so the cycle of lying and broken agreements is likely to continue.

Listening means putting yourself in your child's shoes, it doesn't mean that it was o.k. for her to break the agreement. Many parents fall into the trap of believing that they are condoning their child's behavior when they listen to what their child has to say. Listening doesn't condone, it simply sets up the relationship with your child so that incidents of this nature are less likely to happen in the future.

Once the facts are all out in the open, discuss the importance of your child keeping agreements with you. Include a more formalized way of handling things when an agreement must be broken. You might want to say "In order for me to take you seriously, I need to feel as though you'll not only remember the agreements we make, but that you'll keep them. How can we handle this in the future if you want or need to break an agreement that we made?" (In the case of the boy coming home from the concert, it would be important to include how sometimes it's necessary and safer to break an agreement rather than keep your word. Still, the boy could have called home to let his mother know that he was making alternate arrangements than those they had originally agreed upon.)

Usually, a phone call or brief discussion will be all it takes to break an agreement, and this should be agreed upon between you and your child.

If the broken agreement is a result of her forgetting the original agreement, maybe you need to come up with ways to help her remember what her agreements with you were. Writing agreements down is a good way to ensure that they are remembered in the future.