There have always been two schools of thought about the relationship between children and wrongdoing:
- The “blank slate” argument holds that children are amoral at birth and are wholly shaped by their environment and by significant people in their lives
- The “inherent sin” argument holds that children are born sinful and don’t need any corrupting influences to do wrong, just the opportunity.
I have always held to the latter argument (especially now that I have watched our seven children grow up). But in an article in New York magazine titled “Learning to Lie,” author Po Bronson has made me do some thinking. My position hasn’t changed, mind you, just become better informed. Here it is: We’re all born liars, and the more practice we have, the better we are at it.
Summarizing several studies, Bronson reported these observations:
- Despite what many popular books advise, children don’t grow out of lying, they grow into it.
- Lying is related to intelligence: Smarter kids make better liars.
- Ninety-eight percent of teens believe lying is wrong, but the same percent admit lying to their parents.
- When teens argue with parents about their wishes, it’s often a positive alternative (relatively speaking) to the frequent first choice—just going behind their parents’ backs.
- Knowing that there are consequences motivates children not to lie less, but to not get caught.
- An appeal to honesty is far more effective than the threat of punishment in getting children not to lie.
The whole article is fascinating. To me, the most eye-opening part of the story involved a study where subjects were asked to admit the biggest lie they ever told.
“I was fully expecting serious lies,” [researcher Bella] DePaulo remarks. “Stories of affairs kept from spouses, stories of squandering money, or being a salesperson and screwing money out of car buyers.”
And she did hear those kinds of whoppers, including theft and even one murder. But to her surprise, a lot of the stories told were about when the subject was a mere child—and they were not, at first glance, lies of any great consequence. “One told of eating the icing off a cake, then telling her parents the cake came that way. Another told of stealing some coins from a sibling.” As these stories first started trickling in, DePaulo scoffed, thinking, “C’mon, that’s the worst lie you’ve ever told?” But the stories of childhood kept coming, and DePaulo had to create a category in her analysis just for them. “I had to reframe my understanding to consider what it must have been like as a child to have told this lie,” she recalls. “For young kids, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child, and that they did the right thing.”
Many subjects commented on how that momentous lie early in life established a pattern that affected them thereafter. “We had some who said, ‘I told this lie, I got caught, and I felt so badly, I vowed to never do it again.’ Others said, ‘Wow, I never realized I’d be so good at deceiving my father, I can do this all the time.’ The lies they tell early on are meaningful. The way parents react can really affect lying.”
The takeaway here is that lying, no matter how small, is a big deal. Think about it. Lying requires, first, a recognition of the truth. Faced with the prospect of not looking good against the truth, a child or adult then has to devise an alternative, usually opposite, version of the truth. Even before the lie is told, there has already been a conscious decision to reject the truth.
Parents play an important role in helping their children not to get trapped in this pattern. Here are some of the best things you can do as parents to steer your children away from lying.
Be an example. They need you to be the examples of telling the truth, and that includes avoiding white lies and socially polite (but disingenuous) remarks designed to evade conflict. Children are in a constant process of learning what is true, appropriate, and helpful in how they interact positively with others.
Lying, unfortunately, is a fact of life in a sin-crusted world. We need to be honest with ourselves and with our children. We are all tempted to lie, and each of us fails the truth test more than we care to admit. If our children are going to develop the discipline to always embrace the truth, it will be with our help. Make truth the norm in your home.
Emphasize relationship. Bronson’s article and other social research reveal that the children who lie the least are those who have a warm relationship with their parents and who have open lines of communication with them. Conversely, the children most likely to lie are those who are regularly confronted by their parents over minor offenses—like leaving a mess in the family room or forgetting to follow through on a responsibility. Rather than pointing out the wrong in these situations, simply reminding the child of the right thing to do is more likely to prevent the child from repeating the offense the next time the opportunity presents itself.
It’s important to realize that one of the reasons children lie to their parents is because they want to please them. Many times, kids fear that if they tell the truth, their parents will think less of them or not love them. Therefore, make it easier for your children to tell the truth. Acknowledge when they do make the difficult decision to tell the truth in spite of consequences. Assure them of your unconditional love, and tell them that one of the things that makes you happy is when they tell the truth.
Show them the big picture. The Apostle John reflected the heart of God when he said, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). In Scripture, the word “truth” is repeatedly used as an essential characteristic of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In contrast, Satan is referred to as the “father of lies” and “the deceiver.” Most important for us to teach our children is that lying is a poor reflection of God, who created each of us in His image and who loves us in spite of our sin.
We do this by being honest and open ourselves. We need to constantly remind our children that lying is not as much deceiving others as it is being deceived ourselves. Satan is the father of lies, but God is the Author of truth. Living uprightly before God means never having to be afraid of the truth. And we can assure them that God’s forgiveness (as well as ours) in the face of sin is always there when they are willing to admit when they have fallen short of the truth.
Living in the light
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another,” the Apostle Paul told the believers at Ephesus (Ephesians 4:25).
Children need your loving reminder that lying undermines their reputation. But even worse, it harms a relationship. Truth is at the heart of every good relationship. Help your children understand that honesty builds those relationships, but deception undermines them. And just as we become better liars the more practice we have, we develop stronger relationships with others and with God the more we practice living in the light of truth.
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