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When Jennifer, a mother of two, heard her 14-year-old daughter, Margaret, tell a hopeful suitor over the telephone that she couldn’t go to the movies with him because she had to study, Jennifer was only “mildly” concerned about the “white” lie.
Jennifer knew Margaret wasn’t interested in the boy, didn’t have to study, and was trying to avoid a potentially awkward situation. She was somewhat relieved that Margaret chose a compassionate approach. In fact, Jennifer went so far as to hand Margaret an approving pat on the back.
Lying to your kids – and them lying to you
Examples of parents establishing a hazy line between lying and telling the truth are easily found in homes across the country. And yet, according to some recent studies, honesty is the number one trait parents hope to see in their children. These same studies revealed that 96 percent of children surveyed lie to their parents.
Parenting experts Laura and Malcolm Gauld believe that the disparity rests in what parents are actually paying attention to versus what they say is most important for their children to learn. Leaders in the field of character education and founders of The Biggest Job parenting seminars, the Gaulds readily assert that parents are sending their children mixed messages because they are — themselves — confused.
Some lies are easily rationalized
In a culture gripped by achievement and image, which increasingly leans toward materialism and competition, the Gaulds explain it is understandable that parents might fall into the pattern of reinforcing messages that can bolster their children or diffuse a potentially uncomfortable situation in some way, no matter what the consequences.
“It starts out innocently,” says Laura. “Children are learning from their parents that an undetected lie, even the seemingly most benign, can reap rewards, prevent punishment and, most importantly, win a parent’s approval. In Jennifer’s case, the way Margaret handled the situation with a friend could easily be construed as harmless and possibly even helpful.”
This raises the possibility that while many parents, in theory, agree that telling the truth is the right thing to do — that it is what they want to teach their children — there are occasions when lying becomes an acceptable practice.”
“We can all relate to not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, wanting to please someone, or exaggeration,” Malcolm explains. “We oftentimes easily rationalize these situations away as necessary acts of kindness or diplomacy.”
But deeper issues underlie a more serious outcome engendered by a parent’s dismissal or excusal of deceit — whether it is their own or their child’s. The Gaulds caution parents who become comfortable with drawing a gray line where lying is concerned, saying children typically won’t grow out of lying, rather they often grow into it.
Getting ahead by cheating?
Recent data suggest that children are learning at a rapid rate how to get ahead by cheating. As they grow older and their crimes become more serious, so too do the consequences for getting caught.
“Dismissal from school, a tainted reputation or transcript, or a criminal record is the converse of what parents want for their children,” says Laura. “And while we can only hope that these outcomes are the exception rather than the rule, they are very possible and real consequences to a life gone unchecked for too long.”
“What we as parents pay attention to is what we reinforce in our families,” says Malcolm. “The fact is that many well-intentioned parents who want to raise good, decent human beings and who believe that having integrity is important are only paying lip service to qualities such as honesty… and they’re not kidding anyone, least of all their kids.”
All of this dovetails with what the Gaulds coin as creating a “character culture” in the home — or a way to combat the ever-pervasive and sometimes subliminal seduction of the achievement culture.
“In a character culture, achievement is valued, but principles, such as honesty and concern for others are valued more,” says Malcolm. “That is, what you stand for, who you are, is more important than what you can do, or how you stack up against the others.”
Rules that always apply
The good news, say the Gaulds, is that when parents recognize the pressures that bear down upon them and their children — pressures that derive from a need to be accepted, to get ahead, or keep the peace — they can often resist the temptation to fall into self-defeating attitudes and actions that work against the very principles and qualities they value most and want to instill in their families.
“What many of the parents learn,” says Laura, “is that as the family relationships shift from resting on a foundation of achievement and image to a foundation of principles, where there is little room for mixed messages, confusion, contradiction. The same rules apply no matter what.”
“Parents are the primary teachers and the home is the primary classroom,” Laura continues. “It takes a high level of awareness and fortitude to recognize the common traps we fall into and then do something about it, and sometimes it can feel like we’re moving against the tide. But the result is that we teach our kids the importance of being measured by what kind of people they are and what their true contributions will be in life.”
So, how can parents foster open dialogue and honesty in their children and avoid sending them mixed messages? The Gaulds offer three helpful tips:
Hold discussions with your children about which principles are most important in your family. Write them down; display them on a cork board or the refrigerator; and, most importantly, talk about them with your children every chance you get. When issues in the family come up (and they will come up), the principles will serve as a map and compass. There is a definite right way and wrong way to go, and messages are less likely to be misconstrued.
Model what you convey to your children . Don’t lie. And, if you do catch yourself in a lie, don’t be afraid to talk about it with your children. Letting them know you are human and offering them a sincere apology for falling off-track will give them the humility to ask for help when they need it and it will teach them that self-learning is a lifelong process.
Remember you are a parent and mentor to your child — not a friend. It is not your job to persuade, manipulate, or coax your children into doing what you believe is right, rather guide them with love and discipline toward their unique best. Our true test as parents is to arm our children with the tools they will need to be independent and productive members of their communities and to set the course for them to live fulfilling lives.