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Teaching Children about Lying and Trust

By Yvette Vignando - 21st June 2010

I was listening to the Professor of Psychology, Paul Ekman, being interviewed by Margaret Throsby on ABC radio about his work on facial expressions, deception and emotion. They spoke about how to tell if someone is lying, about the importance of truthfulness and about teaching children not to tell lies. Paul Ekman's book  Emotions Revealed is a book I have had on my shelf for a few years and I often refer to it.

During the interview, there was a comment by Ekman about telling lies that I especially liked. He said the way to tell if a lie is acceptable is this: put yourself in the position of the person being told the lie, think about what it would be like if they found out that they had been lied to and then ask yourself - would that person feel hurt, deceived or exploited when hearing that you had lied or would they feel that you had done the right thing by them at that particular time? He said one example where it might be okay to lie is when you tell your partner they are the most beautiful person in the room (on a day when they are feeling a bit down and need some support).

I think Ekman's test is one of many ways of teaching your child about the importance of honesty. When I talk to my children about telling lies and about truth I usually talk about trust. I tell them how important it is for me to trust them and for them to trust me and I explain how lies erode trust. Teaching kids about telling the truth seems to be a gradual process and needs all sorts of different examples to be effective. I also think that part of the process includes parents learning how to react fairly when a child tells the truth about a mistake or wrongdoing - in a way that does not stop a child from telling the truth next time.

But what I want to think about now is Ekman's test about lies. I am trying to formulate a way to explain this to a younger child as well as a teenager. There are lots of things parents can say to children to explain the importance of honesty. But I wanted to put some of my ideas down here only about the point that Ekman made. I would love to hear your input and reactions.

For a preschool child - "It's a good idea to tell me what really happened because then I feel happy that you told me the right thing and I can help you fix your mistake."

For a young primary school child - "Sometimes it's hard to tell me the truth about something because you might feel worried that I will be angry about what happened. But if you tell me the truth, I will feel proud of you for being honest and I will try to help you fix your mistake. If you tell me lies, I will feel disappointed and maybe also feel angry that you did not tell me the truth."

For an older primary school child - "You know it is important to tell the truth so that I can always trust what you say to me. And please try to remember that if I find out that you told me a lie I will feel much more upset about you not being truthful - it hurts my feelings when you tell a lie. I feel happier when you are honest and when you tell me the truth and I can help you fix your mistake."

For a teenager - "You already know how important it is for me to trust you and that when you tell me a lie, it is much harder for me to trust you. You also know that I value honesty and I think it is important. Next time you are thinking about lying to me, please think about how I will feel when I find out you told me a lie. If you know I would be upset that you were untruthful about what you did or said, then that should be enough for you to have the courage to tell me the truth. You know that I will help you with whatever mistake you have made."

I know these are quite clinical examples of dialogues but I'm just trying to figure out how to explain Ekman's test to a child without giving them a licence to be untruthful when it suits them! Any other suggestions?

Comments (6)

YvetteVignando's picture

Lying and Paul Ekman's work

Great point - about how parents tell "white lies" and then have to explain to their children the subtle differences. And as you say, depending on the age of your child, this may be a challenge.

How do we explain it to younger children - our desire to make other people feel comfortable and telling an untruth to achieve it? I guess it depends on how and if you explain your values to your child.

Are our own values even decided on this? I tried a few different explanations to suggest in response to the very good point you make - but came up with no good answer!

I think we need to start with the explanation that telling the truth makes people trust us. The best I could come up with was "Adults sometimes do not tell the truth because they know a lot about other people's feelings.Because they are adults they know when it is okay to say something that is not true, to make sure that the other person's feelings are not hurt. But children are still learning about feelings so it's very important to be truthful. " BUT to me this is not good enough because:
1. it's not true that all adults know a lot about other people's feelings; and
2. when our child loudly tells the truth in a shopping aisle about the size of another shopper's figure (has happened to me) then another level of explanation is required!

Over to the wise audience at happychild ...

lying and our culture

It's an interesting issue Yvette, and I think the debate could include the way it is seen to be acceptable in our culture to lie to smooth over social relationships. Children find this quite confusing. My 5 year old wonders why she can't say to someone they're fat, for example, when it seems clear to her that that's the truth. Lying does erode trust but it's also regularly used by the most otherwise responsible adults to smooth the way to getting what they want, and children overhear this regularly. I'm interested in how we can explain these confusing hypocrises to 5 year olds whose moral compasses are highly tuned!

YvetteVignando's picture

Good Luck

Good luck Jodie - I know there's no one-size-fits-all solution to lying and children. I also noticed that there seem to be peaks and troughs with it - from recollection, 10 years old seems to be a peak time! I wonder if gender differences influence honesty?

Jodie at Mummy Mayhem's picture

Great Advice

What a great post, Yvette. Some great tips here. I tend to get quite annoyed when the 8yo lies to me on occasion, but I also know he's doing it because he thinks I might get angry about what he's lying over. I've never thought to word it this way with him, and I think that will help!

YvetteVignando's picture

Lying and Teens

I agree that the teenage lie is a whole other level of sophistication. I hope my radar is as finely tuned as yours when the time comes.

Annette Reuss's picture


Wish I had read this post when my boys were younger. I like the words you have provided. I think I may have gotten it wrong on occasions when they were little.

It is my experience that teenagers have lying down to a fine art, particularly from 14 to 17. I used to think that if my children lie to me I have failed somewhere in my parenting - truth is teenagers lie because they want to do things their parents won't approve of. The good thing is I can tell exactly when both of mine lie to me and thankfully they do feel extremely guilty when they are caught out. The older they get, the less frequent the lies. I believe, despite the fact that they would lie often when they were younger, they have learnt the value of honesty.

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