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Liar’s Club

February 21, 2011

We are in the car, buckled in, waiting a short, grating eternity for Rosie to confess that she did not, in fact, put socks on under her boots. “I won’t be mad honey, I just need you to tell me the truth,” I say. And even as I pledge myself as a beacon of forgiveness bobbing in the stormy seas of consequence and punishment, I can already feel my frustration curdling. “I diiiiiiid,” Rose maintains, her own desperate and theatrical insistence the very chink in her witness-stand armor. I give her six more chances to tell the truth, but she stubbornly clings to her story, unable now to dig out from the avalanche of non-truth she’s buried herself under.

I unstrap myself from the front seat to whisk off her boots, revealing the naked, chilled and criminal feet. The drama is so heavy you can almost hear the hush fall over the studio audience, which is just Col, who observes with surprise, “Rosie was lying Mama!”

“Rose, there’s no lying in this family. When you lie, it hurts our whole household,” I tell her, which is like the manifesto of the Vague but Ethical Society, and you can almost see the trajectory of my words sailing right over Rose’s head.

“Well, it doesn’t exactly hurt our household,” Col adds, “because our house doesn’t have a mouth.”

The Truth is a murky place in a child’s mind, where fantasy and reality swirl together as imperceptibly as a twist cone of vanilla and well, vanilla. In December, after studying a newly received Christmas card, Rose pointed to a beautiful 4-year old girl in the picture and said “I like her. Can that be me?”

Two years ago at the Children’s museum, Rose had uncharacteristically toddled away from me, following her brother into the fray of loud, gallumphing children. Three minutes later Col returned, announcing, “Rosie’s crying!” I praised Col for finding me and scooped up my wailing toddler. Later, walking to our car, I wondered out loud what had made Rose suddenly cry. “Oh, maybe because I pushed her down.” Col said nonchalantly.

As we work on this ethic of truth-telling—me thanking Col and Rose for admitting to crayoning the tile floor, as weird as that feels—examples of my own dishonesty tap me on the shoulder.

When Col was 3 and in the process of shedding his clothes in a public park in November, I spotted a man strolling by and whispered to Col that this man was patrolling the park, making sure children followed the rules. Col grabbed his ankle-slung pants and pulled them up quick.

As recently as the year that ends in eleven, I told Rose that a sign in the Rec Center locker room said “All children must pee before getting in the pool,” which is a good idea, but not what the sign said.

Once again, I am learning alongside my children, trying to cultivate honesty, at least by the time they start reading.

Is the line between truth and fiction clear in your house? Whose the guiltiest, the kids or adults?

30 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011 7:28 am

    The Truth. Oh golly. You are catching me on one of those days where I feel every line is blurry. What is the Truth? Is it capable of being snagged and harnessed and TOLD?

    I do the best I can, day by day. And then I do the best I can, hour by hour, to question the truth. Because I find that, actually, it is in the questions, and the questioning of what I seem so CERTAIN is the truth, that I find I am most enlightened.

  2. February 21, 2011 9:31 am

    Truth is very important in our home. Both my kids have gone through lying phases (around 4 years old) and we treat it VERY seriously. Just yesterday we were talking about how lying makes it difficult to trust a person. Adults are held to the same standard. If there is something the kids don’t need to know, we tell them in vague terms or talk about how sometimes adults need privacy, or that there are just things that children aren’t ready to hear yet.

    But, we do have Santa and the tooth fairy visit our home, so I don’t know what that says about us….

    Good luck, though, Rachel, I feel for you!

  3. February 21, 2011 9:31 am

    It’s so funny to point out how even the littlest lie can hurt our household, then to have me dodging around the corner to eat a chocolate bar. Moments later, the girls find me chewing and I say, “Oh, honeys, Mama has to eat more chocolate than you at once because my stomach is so much larger than yours.” Really? That’s the best I’ve got?

    I feel like I tip top on the line of shame if I catch the girls in a lie. I want so badly for them to see that truth matters, but I don’t want them to shame themselves into the positive light.

    My three year old, Lucy, tells me she’s made her bed, peed before our car ride, and so on. Investigating tells otherwise. Oh, well. Keeps us on our toes and keeps the lessons coming.

    *criminal feet* love it.

  4. February 21, 2011 11:36 am

    I read something recently (maybe at the API blog?) about young children telling lies essentially because they are stating what they wish were true, and perhaps if they say so, maybe it will become so. The article had some lovely suggestions about how to handle the situation, none of which I remember … ah, look, here it is.

    Methinks that we adults probably lie for similar reasons? Not true, but oh, we wish we wish we wish it were so.

  5. February 21, 2011 11:39 am

    As a child I would be Whipped almost to death if I told a lie! (so it felt like)..I soon learned the truth was the best thing to tell…When it came to Santa and the tooth fairy, I gave in…those lies to me were an escape for my children from the true reality of THEIR lives. Hubby still rather lie than tell the truth..which to me is so distressful, I can tell overtime when he does :o(

  6. February 21, 2011 1:30 pm

    Oh man, the lying phase. All my kids went through that, Connor is in it now. Same kind of stuff…
    OF COURSE I have my socks on! (nope)
    YES, I went pee! (until we’re a mile from home, on the highway, 20 minutes from our destination)
    My dinner is ALL GONE!! (well, technically. But the dog is more full than you!)

    It does take them a while cognitively to distinguish truth from make-believe.

    And yeah, I totally hide the chocolate, ‘read’ signs in a more – ahem – effective manner, we have Santa come, and the Tooth Fairy will too. I also lie like a rug when asked questions about his parents…


  7. Calamity Jane permalink
    February 21, 2011 1:38 pm

    My 3yo just started true lying recently. In that innocent way of the beginning. I have given her my own Vague Ethics Speeches as well. I told her that a lie is when you intend for the person to believe what you’re saying. Otherwise it’s just a joke. I feel like this gives me at least a little out, because when she’s lying and it’s obvious, I can just laugh at the absurdity (which is my natural reaction anyway), not cruelly, but in a “good joke!” kind of way. So far, knowing no shame about the subject, she can see the humor, and laughs with me, defusing the whole situation.
    I’m curious how this will change tho, as she gets the picture that lying is ‘wrong.’ God, I remember my mom laying such heavy guilt/shame trips on me about lying. I went through a phase of it around ten-ish I think. I suspect most kids do.
    But I grew up into an adult so honest, I go back up to the cashier when they’ve given me too much change! Annoyingly honest! Was it the heavy guilt training? Or just the fact of growing up? Who knows.
    But oh man is it true about being the people we ask our kids to be. Holy Shicksa! Nothing like having a three year old to demonstrate the immaturity of my 33 years.
    Thanks for all your raw writing.

  8. Rachel Kohnen permalink
    February 21, 2011 2:31 pm

    Does telling my then-3-year-old daughter that “we cannot nurse in the park because the sign says so” count as lying? I am guilty as charged.

  9. Sheryl permalink
    February 21, 2011 2:31 pm

    Great post Rachel! In our house lies turn into stories that are so obviously not in our reality that the line is blurred. Nils then jumps to his invisible pocket friends that told him that! Or HuhHa, Miss Becca told me that. Or like when Ella told your parents at school that she has an older brother. No harm but still a lie. I don’t appear to be creative enough with my child marketing skills to make something up in the moment, I tend to go for the plain truth, but when I do pull the creative counter reply out, it seems to work like a charm. If we can keep the peace with a white lie -that’s great, it’s when they catch you that the moral question arises for them, it mama can do it then….?
    I try to remember lying is part of the developmental process…or so I’ve been told:)

  10. Molly permalink
    February 21, 2011 5:04 pm

    Lucinda has stories that she tells about times when we were not home, and left her home alone, and a crocodile came, and a bear had to be pushed out of her door, and so on and so on. The narrative thread is getting richer and richer. But she also has firm ideas about what’s real and what’s not, somewhat more firm than I am comfortable with, myself. After all, I’d like for her eventual favorite dolly (preferably one that I’ve made her myself) to seem person-like to her, as my teddy bear did to me. She has got a little sister named, as I recall, Ashara, whose potty that is (pointing) and who is sick and therefore takes medicine in the morning, and is a big girl not a baby. So far she’s not failing to take responsibility for spills or failures to execute chores. When she does something vexing, she often tells me, “That’s o.k., Mommy! We’ll just [insert problem solution here].” Meanwhile, I’m feeling guilty about the Santa Claus story, and try to refer to it in the same jocular tone I use to ask her if she’s my monkey, hoping she’ll catch on to the subtext on her own and not feel betrayed eventually…

  11. Emily permalink
    February 21, 2011 6:23 pm

    I try to ignore the lying. I realize this sounds ridiculous, but there are different situations in which the kids lie. If they lie to get out of trouble (last night my son swept bird seed under the dryer, thus making it tens times harder to clean up, rather than admit to spilling it), I try to address the practical reasons not to lie in the situation. “Hey Jack, it’s way harder for US to clean up the bird seed when I have to shift the dryer. Next time just tell me when you spill it”. If they lie because they wish it were so, I just empathize with the wishing (however much I have never wished to be Beowulf and kill Grendel). For the most part they’ve grown out of this lying. Lastly, if they lie to manipulate (hurt someone, etc) I’ll yell and carry on. Thankfully, they’re pretty nice kids and I can’t think of an example of it. :>)

    We have more of a problem in social situations when they are too honest… “Nonnie, this spaghetti isn’t very good” doh! So we’re working on the “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything” theory.

  12. February 21, 2011 6:49 pm

    I try to go with the philosophy that kids don’t really lie, they just tell you what you want to hear. And my kids are terrible liars–Z has lately learned to cross his eyes, so if he’s answering a direct question (do you have the Frogjuice card?) and crossing his eyes, it’s a good bet it’s a lie. E can’t keep from smiling. And Mr. Literal Rule-Follower M doesn’t lie very much at all, but gets really mad at me when I say things like, “There are little men who live inside the light poles, and when they see a car, they flip a switch to change the light from red to green.” “Moooom! You’re teaching them wrong things!!!”

    And you’re right. A pee before you go in the pool sign would be a great idea.

  13. February 21, 2011 7:00 pm

    The epic story my mom still cackles over is that she told me there were alligators all over the ground when I was learning to walk. Consequently, I always wanted to be held when we were away from home and never wanted to toddle off and eat leaves or dirty Cheerios, as children do.

    In my house, the big one now is that our car is allergic to stickers. We can’t take them anywhere near the car because poor Freddie (that’s our car’s name) will get so sick she’ll stop working. It’s the truth. For now, at least.

  14. February 21, 2011 8:02 pm

    These comments are just as good as the post, for approaches and for humor. My kids, 5 and 3, don’t always know when they’re lying. (yes, in trouble-evasion, they know/WISH it were true… ) but sometimes I’ll get such fantastic versions of the life they are WISHING that I can’t bear to break it down to ‘reality’… and so the confusing mishmosh of mommy-ing tromps on…

  15. rose permalink
    February 21, 2011 10:03 pm

    I am definitely guilty of taking advantage of my pre-reading children and just making stuff up as it suits me. Sheesh. A mom’s gotta take the help she can get sometimes, ya know?

    I don’t take lying from my kids too seriously at their ages (3 and 6). And here’s why:

  16. February 21, 2011 10:31 pm

    At the nearest beach around here, there is a sign that says” Everyone must wear a hat.” I swear, it says that.

  17. February 21, 2011 10:51 pm

    Well, there’s only one adult, and she struggles sometimes not so much with lies, per se, but the withholding of knowledge. And my four year old can smell it, the second I’m fumbling for how to honestly respond or at least lie by omission, which must be at least a step above the other kind. There is a little bit of lying from the small people, too, and I’m still developing my tactics for dealing with it.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      February 22, 2011 3:14 pm

      This is a very good point. The withholding of knowledge. I recently told Rose that a box of condoms were a box of band-aids, because I just didn’t want to “go there.” However I did not feel good about lying. Then a very wise Mama told me that there’s a way of not lying and also not giving too much information. For example, I could have said “that’s for pregnancy prevention.” And maybe that would have been enough for Rose. As it were, guess what she wanted to use after her next cut. “Those big band-aids.”

      Growing children at 6512 feet:

  18. February 21, 2011 10:53 pm

    I think as much as I can I attempt to set the stage for honest relating and communication. That means sometimes I admit, “oh, that wasn’t true how I stated that…let me try again to be clear,” or I offer, “you know as I think about this, I made something sound like it was “Y” when it is actually “Z”. so I show them the difficulty in being clear, but that I am invested in working to be clear. I also ask, “is there anytihng else you think i should know?” or “do you want to add anything else?” Reflecting back what I heard them say, sometimes helps prompt them towards accuracy too. Then they get a chance i think to re-do a statement and catch themselves (with grace) and offer truth.

    I also try to avoid allowing them to do too much for themselves if i have expectations around how I wish something to be done. If I wish for my son to bring his jacket, but know inside of myself that he will either forget or choose not to bring it, and get in the car without it, but when asked, say he has it, then I bring the jacket myself. I have also avoided putting “weight” onto words and concepts that they don’t really get until, as I’ve read and understood it, about 10-13 years old, depending on mental development. Words that I don’t put weight on would include lying, truth, liar, etc. I would choose to use the word honesty though, as it describes a virtue, and is less often used in an accusatory way. That is alot of modelling time for us adults, and also alot of time to talk meaningfully or seize moments when we can say things in less charged situations or in times when the connected flow is moving. I think the desire for mutual honesty grows as we come to see the value of relationship, and the cost to that if we lie, as we mature. I am still growing in this place myself!

    When my child is being dishonest, I agree with an above poster, in that I come from the place that I know that they “wish” something were a certain way because they fear losing our connection and attachment, and I never want my child to experience that type of disconnect. So I attempt to be really casual about it, and continue to dialogue in a non-threatening way about whatever seems to be an issue. I too, grew up with harsh punishments around perceived lying or inaccuracies, and the effects of those punishments (emotional punishments, verbal punishments mostly) was shaming, confusing, physically violating at times, (if my mom hiked up my skirt to see if I had undies on for example), and made me work harder at hiding things, especially when I really just needed help and support, but couldn’t trust it would be there, because the focus was on honesty, not attachment and love and support.

    My whole aim with my kids is for them to trust me, so I trust them, even when they are dishonest, if that makes sense?

    Whew, that should have been a post! :-)


  19. Chi-An permalink
    February 21, 2011 11:35 pm

    Hahaha, I just had to share with you a trick I came up with: “There is no chocolate for you” does not actually mean the same as “There is no chocolate.” Brilliant, eh? Not lying, just… a creative use of the truth.

    I always say that this is what my kids get growing up with two programmers for parents. We tend to be very literal and very exacting in our language.

    However, either because we are exacting in our language, or because our son is just hard-wired this way because we are, he (my son) closely resembles a 4-foot-tall lawyer. He will argue every tiny point he can come up with in order to negotiate his way out of something.

    We never did Santa, although we do talk about how Santa represents the spirit of sharing and generosity. We do Tooth Fairy, but I strongly suspect that my son knows the truth and is just playing along to get the cash.

  20. February 22, 2011 10:44 am

    I get caught in this same space. And it seems as my children are getting older, it gets a bit harder. There are always topics where I don’t share the whole truth for fear of shedding too much light on certiain issues, but then that leaves me as the one judging how much might be too much. I have one who is always telling me she’s brushed her teethw hen she hasn’t, and it has gotten to the point of me and my husband always second guessing what she says. And that I just do not like. I want to be able to trust my kdidos, and when I stop it usually means I need to take a step back and listen to myself in some way. It’s always something with these littles!


  21. February 22, 2011 11:24 am

    Oh I have such a pit in my stomach reading all of this. Are we making it harder than it needs to be because we have been so “trained’ in a certain way to respond to kids which is, I think, very NOT helpful in the end? Erin, I hear what you are saying and that is what I want too. Completely. I want to avoid situations where I potentially shame my kids by forcefully revealing a “lie”. I wonder if there’s a way to insert empathy to soften them and give them an “out” (kids have pride, too). Hey, honey, I am feeling strongly about you having socks under those boots because I want your feet to be warm. I care about you and want you to be safe. Are you thinking that your feet will be warm enough without socks? We might have different ideas about that. Can you think of a way we could work this out? Maybe you could tell me if you chose not to wear socks and I will bring extra ones and we’ll see which you prefer. Maybe your feet are different than mine and stay warm without socks?
    I want there to be trust between us and I don’t want to be the “cop” checking up on their words. If they do something that I don’t like, I want to be curious about it because I believe there is always a reason that makes perfect sense to them. I would rather they got mad at me saying, I don’t need socks so I didn’t put them on. Then we can actually have a discussion from there, instead of the me against you of “catching” them in a “lie”.
    I can’t stand the idea of telling them signs say things that they don’t. If it works for you and feels reasonable and ok to you, then kudos to you, for sure! To me, it leads to all kinds of problems, the very least of which is instilling fear in them and a sense that the world is out to get them and catch them. It’s much more work in the short term to me, to sort out my feelings and describe these to them (because I am still learning all this myself and it doesn’t come automatically), but then SO much LESS work in the long run because I’ve invested in a trusting relationship with them where their ideas/opinions/interests matter. Thank you Rachel for risking vulnerability and asking the questions. I appreciate your candor (and your writing!)
    Blessings to you all.

  22. February 22, 2011 1:02 pm

    Oh boy, I’m the guilty one as I can’t resist spinning a good story. I tell everyone the difference is that I will tell you it’s a story…if you ask. If you don’t ask then I’m free to spin the most outrageous stories until one can’t help but realize there isn’t an ounce of truth to what I’m saying. So, does that make me a liar or a story teller? I have friends who will tell you I’m a wonderful liar, but I grew up in a family of story tellers and I know the difference. I can empathize with Rose though, because once you’ve started digging that hole it’s impossible to get out without losing your dignity. Then again, it’s a good thing to learn the difference when you’re young.

  23. February 22, 2011 4:58 pm

    Oh this was such a great story! And a good reminder too. I work on honesty with my oldest but I know that she doesn’t get it yet. I understand your struggle with thanking your child for telling you they drew on something, had an accident in their bed or pushed their sibling.
    Found your blog through Hip Mountain Mama. So glad that I stopped by.

  24. February 22, 2011 5:27 pm

    Great post. Great comments.

    I am freaky about lying. It is completely uncomfortable to me, at times to Andy’s frustration when he thinks it would be easier to say the yogurt raisins are all gone instead of explaining they are indeed right there but not available for consumption. I just feel like lies beget lies beget lies…it never ends well.

    Also, what about joking? I don’t like joking, in the adult sense. “I am going to get your nose!” to a terrified two year-old followed by, “I am just joking!” My mom used to fake cry…like she’d ask for a hug and Margot would decline so she’d bury her face in her hands and then say “just kidding.” It made me so uncomfortable in a world where I am trying like hell to raise compassionate kids who take crying seriously. I had a great talk with my mom and she stopped, totally got it.

    Margot has just started to lie and it is so interesting to me. Where does it come from and why? Perhaps learned behavior from all that joking? Frequently, the lie is about socks under boots! Ha.

    Thanks, friend, for the thoughtful, thought-provoking post. Love your heart.

  25. February 23, 2011 10:39 am

    You know, I have been thinking and thinking about this since you posted Rachel. I really appreciate you women out there, and how you make me think deeply and reflexively about stuff.

    I know that cognitively, kids have a very difficult time distinguishing between what is real and what is fiction. This is one major component of why television is seen as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ for little kids. They see things, they think those things are real, they try to re-enact those things. Somebody (maybe his uncle? maybe his papa? maybe his mom…) watched some Batman with Connor when he was 3. Batman punches bad guys. Connor started punching everybody because he was being Batman. He couldn’t distinguish that Batman didn’t punch grammas, or that Batman was not a real person.
    And yet… and yet we place great value on imagination, creativity, instilling love of story in our children. I would guess that in most homes, as in ours, the vast majority of children’s books that we love, that they love, are fiction. When you give a mouse a cookie, for example, he will not end up sweeping the floor, nor will he be wearing cute little blue overalls. The teddy bear that a child wants at the store will not go looking for a button after everyone leaves for the night. So, where do WE draw the line between seeing lying and seeing storytelling? Where is our distinction?
    Like this one book we have, The Berenstain Bears and the Big Whopper. Brother and Sister learn about lying and trust. But Brother and Sister are a big ol’ lie! Bears don’t talk or play soccer! So, we use lies of one sort, that we call fiction, to teach kids to not lie. LOL!

    My grandmother, though a reader, and the person who most influenced my love of books and reading, hated with spitting passion fiction. I love fiction. I lived in Narnia, and was friends with James and Charlie. She destroyed books she found in my room on one occasion. Too bad they were library books…
    I often feel within myself the need to just lighten the heck up, because I know how much I truly value creativity and imagination, and yet how do I square that with letting or not letting Connor spin ridiculous tales? How do I say, This story is so wonderful!, and become upset when he tells me a wonderful story? Not all fiction is pleasant, right? And yet, it can still be a wonderful story.

    And, in our situation, really… I promise… I have to lie when he asks questions about his parents, especially his dad. When he says, “Does my dad love me? Did my dad want me?” I am certainly not going to answer truthfully… “No Connor, your dad doesn’t love you at all. He wishes more than anything in this world that you didn’t exist.”
    “Why doesn’t my mommy take care of me? Why isn’t she being my mommy?”
    “Because after your lying rat-bastard of a sperm donor broke her heart and shattered what shaky faith she had in herself, she kinda went a little nuts, started drinking way too much, and doing drugs, and trying really really hard to die so she didn’t have to face anything.”
    That’s the truth. Not going to tell that truth to this small boy. Ever. And I mean it. He is never going to hear it in the most truthful, honest way. I will always and forever put the positive spin on it. “Sweetie, your parents were young, and they couldn’t be together, they didn’t love each other, but by making sure that you are safe, and getting what you need, which Gramma and Papa can do for you, but your mom and dad can’t, that shows love for you. And Gramma and Papa love you like the dickens, and want you so, so much, and you are deeply loved and valued in this world.”
    Whitewashing? Oh hell yes. Building a sense of belonging and security and safety in the reality and self-identity of a little boy? God, I hope so.

  26. February 23, 2011 11:19 am

    Woah… late to the game as always. :)

    I wrote a post about when Orlando broke one of the windows in our house, here:

    At the end of the post, I include a handful of links about kids and lying, including the same Daily Groove someone linked to above. The links are great, including ways to help prevent setting your kids up for lying, how they learn to lie, why they lie, and more.

    Fear played a huge role in Orlando’s not telling us he broke the window, so it was a big relief when everything came out in the open. The line you had about “thanking your kids for telling you they crayoned all over the floor” — I do that, too.


  27. February 27, 2011 10:46 pm

    I haven’t read ALL the responses…but wanted to comment to say that I read somewhere once that young kids don’t always know they are lying. It’s a developmental stage they have to reach. For exapmple – I might ask my son if he washed his hands after using the toilet and he might say yes. However, having spied on him I know that he hasn’t. The fact is that he actually “thinks” he has simply because he thought about doing it. Does this make sense?

    Honesty is SO important to us and so I try not to make a huge deal out of the little things but always explain that being honest is the policy in our house and we explain why it is so important (trust, etc.) We are always honest with Isaac too, even if it means being vague…which he is usually fine with. (This also means we don’t do Santa or the like.)

    Not sure there is an answer…just that I think it is so important to model truthfulness…and like Erin said – to not set them up for a situation that you know is going to go south. :) HA! That could be every situation with a young child. xo


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