I think that most of us would agree that encouraging honesty in our children is a priority—especially as it pertains to their interactions with us. It is vitally important that our children have had many opportunities to relate to us honestly, even in difficult situations, prior to entering their tween and teen years. When children have already developed patterns of dishonesty with their parents before they reach these important years, they are far more likely to be dishonest with us when they are making significant life decisions.
The problem is that I often find that the way in which parents believe that they are teaching their children to be honest actually encourages dishonesty.
Consider this scenario: a child is engaged in a difficult conversation with his mother and his teacher. The teacher has described a situation to the mother that transpired during the school day. The mother turns to her child and, with all adult eyes on the boy, says to him, “Tell the truth. You know that it is our family rule to be honest. You must tell the truth. Is this what happened?” The boy looks at his mother, then at his teacher, then at his mother again. He stutters a bit. He pauses. He starts to talk and then stops. He tries to deflect the blame. His mother says, “No, tell the truth. Did this happen?” Finally he says, “No.” Did it happen? Absolutely!
Why didn’t the boy own up to it when his mother said that honesty is so important? It is because he was put on the spot. His mother’s all-or-nothing questioning put him into a fight or flight mode where he felt he needed to protect himself and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. And, worst of all, the interaction between the mother and her child taught him that lying got him out of the uncomfortable situation. He’s likely to do it again when faced with a similar bind in the future.
How can we encourage honesty in our children? Quite simply, present them with a safe opportunity to accept responsibility for their actions. Here are some of my most frequently used techniques when I engage in difficult conversations with children:
1) Acknowledge that people make mistakes. Ask the child if he has made a mistake and would like help solving it.
2) When a child has denied his actions, ask him if he means to say that he wishes he hadn’t done it. I am amazed by how often a child will nod his head in response to this question.
3) Identify for the child that he might be feeling bad about what has happened and that admitting to it will help him to solve it and begin to feel better.
4) Diffuse the intensity of the situation by giving the child some time and space to think through the situation and come to you to accept responsibility when he is ready.
Of course, these techniques don’t work every time. Even if using one of these techniques has not resulted in the desired outcome of honesty, the child has begun the process of learning that admitting to one’s mistakes can be safe and that adults are available to help with finding a solution to the problem.
By providing your child with a secure environment for acknowledging mistakes, you are laying the foundation for increased honesty that will lead to greater trust and truthfulness in later years when adolescents are making significant, life-altering decisions.