Friday, January 25, 2013

Fostering honesty still the best path with kids

From today's Briefing:

Last week we learned officially that Lance Armstrong lied about doping and that a Notre Dame football player’s dead “girlfriend” was an elaborate hoax.

These are awfully big lies, on a grand stage, with enormous consequences.

Armstrong’s case, especially, offers an excellent illustration of the eventual cost of deceit.

This week, I spoke with Dr. Wendy Middlemiss, associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of North Texas and mom of a 15-year-old son, about teaching children the value of honesty.

“Honesty is hard,” Middlemiss says. “It has to be rewarded. It’s important to help kids understand that it’s one of the fibers of a community. And we need to be kind in how we say things.”

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Do you believe that honesty is still an important value in America? I do. I think it is an essential value for any society.

Lying is something that happens as children grow up. We finally learn around age 5, 6, 7 that other people don’t know what we know, what we think. That’s when little children start lying about things like, “Did you eat the last cookie?”

We experiment with saying no because it’s so much easier. If you don’t know the answer, then maybe you’ll believe it. It’s easier to lie because what they did will get them in trouble. But the cost of lying is very high.

Adolescents tend to tell stories. It’s lying in many ways. It’s usually stories that are similar to the football player at Notre Dame.

Adolescents are beginning to define themselves, putting all of the pieces of their history together so that it paints a picture. Very often, they’ll say things that aren’t true.

For most adolescents, it’s not meant to be harmful. It’s part of the process of identifying who they are. It’s important for adults to point out that it’s very damaging.

What are appropriate consequences for lying? With any sort of punishment, it’s best to go back to what that cost is and what you’ve lost in lying.

If you lied to me about brushing your teeth, and part of what you’ve been able to do is have your own routine to go to bed, to brush your teeth, and you haven’t done it, I can’t trust you anymore. Now you have to do it at my convenience. This is what you’ve lost.

It’s the same for teens. You’re losing trust. You can say, “If I can’t trust you to take a shower, wash your hair and brush your teeth, then how am I ever going to trust you to take my car to the drugstore and pick up vitamins and come back? I have to trust everything you say.”

What are some effective ways for parents to model honesty? We need to be honest. Sometimes that means acknowledging something about us that we don’t want to. If we’re driving and we yell at another driver, we have to acknowledge, “I shouldn’t have done that; that wasn’t helpful.”

We might practice with our children how to be honest and be nice. Teach your child to say something not dishonest but also not hurtful.

We have to be honest with our children. I might say to my son, “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you. Can you repeat what you said?” We have to show them how to be honest and respectful. He will see that I could have pretended I listened, but I wouldn’t have known what he said. Model the benefits of being honest.

Are there acceptable exceptions? Are there times when it’s OK to lie? I’m sure that there are. But I don’t think that’s where you want to start.

That’s going to be a real adolescent question. “Do you think I should have just told her that her outfit looked awful? I could tell her that. That is the truth. Is it necessary for me to be truthful then? Can I say something else?”

There’s a difference from being deceitful for your own gain.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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