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Experts tell how to raise an honest kid instead of a better liar

By Mari-Jane Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; VA15

Your child's first lie is an inevitable but jarring moment.

For me, that moment was when I walked in on my 3-year-old, who had chocolate smeared from ear to ear and an empty candy wrapper at her feet. I gently inquired if she had eaten Easter sweets without asking, and I expected her to do me proud with an honest answer.

Except she didn't. And my heart sank.

For at least the past 20 years, parents have rated honesty above any other characteristic they desire in their children, according to authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. They devote part of their 2009 book, "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children" (Twelve), to recent studies about young children and lying. They cite research that has shown that children start lying as young as 3, and they do it with alarming frequency. Four-year-olds, they say, lie about once every two hours and by the time they are 6, most kids are lying about once an hour.

Because lying is clearly a normal part of a child's development, parents may ignore it in young children. But they shouldn't dismiss it, experts say.

We spoke with Bronson and Merryman, and local experts in child psychology, about how parents can teach honesty and deter lying.

Make clear lying is wrong, and why. Kids want to please their parents, and often lie because they don't want to disappoint them. By telling them upfront that you expect honest answers and that the truth is what really makes a mom or dad happy, you can teach a young child that honesty really is the best policy. As with all behavioral issues, rewarding the good is more effective than punishing the bad.

"If it's something that is only happening now and then, I would just have the parents talk to their kids about morals and honesty, and how telling a lie will affect not only themselves but those around them," said Bhavin Dave, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the associate director of the Infant and Toddler Mental Health Program at Children's National Medical Center. "The other thing is making sure there are consequences for it. Kids . . . learn by experience, so just talking to them about it might not get it to sink in."

"If you create an atmosphere of openness and model honesty for your kids . . . then you kind of teach them the merits of being honest and forthcoming as opposed to lying," said Tom Giroux, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents and works with Inova Kellar Center in Fairfax.

Don't set a trap. If you walk into a room, survey the scene and assess the situation. Don't ask the child if he committed the misdeed. Instead, note what happened and that you know he did something wrong, and remind him not to throw balls in the house, or color on the walls without asking. Let it go at that.

"When you are constantly threatening kids with punishment, it encourages kids ultimately to become better liars," Merryman said. "They realize if I'm going to lie, I better not get caught. They're going to go for broke."

Enlist George Washington. Bronson and Merryman cite research from Victoria Talwar at McGill University in Montreal, which shows that, when it comes to fables about lying, parents are better off telling the story of George Washington and the cherry tree than the boy who cried wolf.

According to Talwar's studies, kids were slightly more inclined to lie after hearing the wolf story. George Washington, on the other hand, reduced tall-tale tendencies by 75 percent in boys and 50 percent in girls. Merryman said this proves that kids respond better to the idea that telling the truth makes a parent happy and that the threat of punishment for falsehoods is counterproductive.

"George Washington is almost beautiful in the way the dad says, 'I'd rather have a grove of cherry trees chopped down and have an honest son.' . . . I think that's actually an empowering story that parents walk away with and don't throw their hands up in the air," Merryman said.

Walk the walk. Young children don't understand the nuances that make a white lie to avoid hurting someone's feelings different from a lie of convenience, or to get out of trouble. Monitor yourself, and when you lie, acknowledge it and discuss it.

"They're developmentally not quite capable of understanding those differences until they're 6 or so," Bronson said.

Stay calm. When it comes to dealing with teens, experts say it's best for parents to keep their cool. If not, your teen will be less inclined to come clean about the big stuff, Merryman said.

"They're looking at you to see how you respond, and if you freak out because they blew a quiz, they're not going to tell you when they blow a final or they crack up the car," Merryman said. "You want them to be able to continue to tell you what's going on."

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