To Tell The Truth
If we are to believe our folk history George Washington could not tell a lie even to escape punishment and Honest Abe Lincoln would walk miles to return a penny that wasn’t his. Honesty and truthfulness are values that we adults hold in high esteem. We also assume that children share our views about truthfulness. Because lying is seen as detestable, no parent wants to accept that their child would lie. Every parent sees their child as truthful as George and as honest as Abe. But, to tell the truth…kids don’t know much about the truth or about honesty!
Children don’t perceive truth and honesty in the same way adults do. As adults we have agreed that our society will operate more productively if we tell the truth and if we can count on honesty from others. Children aren’t farsighted enough to see the value of these or any other rules. They don’t see the importance of conforming to agreed upon standards of behavior for the good of all. Children tell lies because it looks like the smart way out. If you ask them if they are the culprit in a situation and they are pretty sure that punishment will follow, then lying seems like the smart thing to do.
Sometimes the lack of truth is even more basic. Children see any incident only from their own point of view. From that perspective, the other kid is always the one that started it and punishment is always unfair and undeserved.
Children aren’t always aware that they are lying. If you have ever tried to convince a child that monsters and nightmares aren’t real, then you know how difficult it is for them to separate fact from fantasy. Things that they are worried or concerned about sometimes become real in their minds even if they never really happened.
Yet another difficulty is the fact that children have not yet mastered the logic of cause and affect. If two things happen at the same time children assume that one caused the other. A child once told me that his mom had caused the burn on his hand. During questioning he agreed that he had, in defiance of his mother, climbed up and put his hand on the stove. The burn, however, didn’t start hurting until mom rubbed ointment on it. In the child’s mind the mom had caused the pain.
Children earnestly look you in the eye and tell you that they didn’t make the mess even when they are the only ones in the room. They swear that an object is theirs even though you know it couldn’t be. They look so angelic and innocent that even though you know better, you swear they must be telling the truth. Children don’t look guilty because they don’t feel guilty. Piaget, Kohlberg, and other child theorists who studied the moral development of children agree that children are not born with a conscience that tells them what is right and wrong. It must be developed and nurtured throughout childhood. Most religions also recognize this fact and identify seven as the “age of accountability”, the time when children can be expected to know right from wrong and to take responsibility for their actions.
Does all this mean that children cannot be expected to be truthful? Well…yes and no! Parents should be realistic in acknowledging that all children (even “good” children) tell lies. It is unrealistic to expect young children to always know the truth or to tell the truth. Rather, as responsible parents, it is our job to teach children to tell the truth by emphasizing the value that we place upon truthfulness, fair play, and the wrong inherent in telling a lie to escape consequences. They need to know that although we don’t stop loving them, we are disappointed when they do not tell the truth. As we do this we help them to develop a conscience and to become responsible truthful adults.