The spiritual development of a child is multi-dimensional. Church history records numerous shifts in focus on Christian parenting from stern correction of wrongdoing to the other extreme of allowing the child to grow without supervision. A more holistic approach focuses on creating an environment where right choices are affirmed and poor choices are dealt with consistently and appropriately. This includes issues of honesty and lying. Lying is a difficult practice to address at any age, but the early years of elementary school offer a key opportunity for parents as the child is moving from the fantasy of preschool to the concrete reality of the elementary years.
Live the truth. Research in the last twenty years on character education has revealed that relegating such instruction, like honesty, to classes or curriculum alone is not the best way to teach values. What the research suggests is that morality is best taught through relationships, modeling, attitudes, and actions of parents and teachers. This is why the home is the best context for developing honesty in young children. The context of watching people who are important in life practice honesty is the best way to instill this value. Coupling this modeling with clear expectations and consistent consequences in guiding behavior, children will have a better opportunity to value and even make a stand for honesty in life now and for years to come.
Be honest. Honesty is the best policy. Statements like, “The police will arrest mom if you do not wear a seatbelt,” where the intent is to gain compliance or control behavior, fail to teach the value of honesty and children will soon realize that parents tell lies to form their own reality. This does not mean parents should answer every question their children ask. There are times to say, “When you are older, we can talk about this” or “Right now I am not ready to talk about this issue.” Parents may also use lying to avoid a tough reality like, “Our dog ran away,” rather than telling the child that the dog died. Giving children examples or justification for lying lays the foundation for the rest of life.
Watch your reactions. Parents must remember that their actions and reactions form examples of what is appropriate in life. Children may fear telling the truth. Maintaining control of facial expressions, gestures, and volume gives the children an opportunity to be honest about their mistakes. Parents can maintain authority without losing control or making the child feel afraid. Children need to know that parents have boundaries for behavior and that if they tell the truth, parents will first acknowledge the truth-telling as the first step to resolving an issue instead of overreacting.
Avoid using “I am sorry” as the consequence. In early childhood, boys and girls learn that saying, “I am sorry” is a way to avoid consequences. This actually encourages children to lie as a way to avoid consequences. Saying, “I am sorry” is a result of an intrinsic/extrinsic recognition of wrongdoing and a desire to restore the relationship.
Responsibility is the first step. When a child confesses to a mistake or wrongdoing, parents should affirm him or her for taking responsibility, but then discuss ways to solve the situation and possible consequences to the child. This should be done without angry tones. Making the consequences logical will help the child understand the reasoning and assist in remembering the situation for the future. Assure the child that when he tells the truth, parents and other adults will trust him more.
Be careful about severe punishment. Parents should always craft consequences or punishment that is appropriate for the age and developmental stage of the child and the inappropriate choice. Parents who use severe punishment may discover that their child uses a lie to avoid the dire nature of punishment.
Lying is sin. When children are asked what a sin is, they often respond, “killing, hitting, or lying.” However, sin is not limited to bad actions. Sin is anytime we choose to do things our way instead of God’s way. Telling the truth is what God wants us to do. Lying only makes a poor choice worse. Dealing with a child in calmness and consistency will encourage the child to take ownership of his choices and begin to deal with the consequences that are related to them.