The Importance of Speaking Honestly to Children

V, all dressed up and waiting to go to her party!

My daughter, V, like any curious toddler, asks a lot of questions.  Some of which, I’m not quite sure how to answer. But I’d rather admit that I, the great and powerful mother, am not all-knowing, than lie to my child. After reading the book, Nurture Shock, which includes a discussion on lying in young children and teens, I was shocked to learn how frequently both children and adults lie.  It truly scared the hell out of me. Mostly, the frequent lying is about minor issues, or even differences in perception.  An example is when my daughter asks, “Toys, mama?” to be interpreted as, “Will you play toys with me, mama?”  To which I might respond, “in a minute, honey”  or “after we finish dinner,”  only to find me a minute later still tidying up the kitchen, folding laundry, or sweeping her directly into her bath after dinner.  I didn’t intend to lie, rather I merely became distracted or busy in this hypothetical situation.  In her mind, though, this is tantamount to a lie.  I told her I would do something, and then I did not follow through.  Nurture Shock makes the case that after years of observing this sort of behavior from parents and other adults, kids get the message that lying is ok.  And then the kids lie about the big things.  Even the “good” kids.

So, as a mother who prizes honesty over nearly every other virtue, I am hoping to set a good example for my daughter.  It is harder than it looks.  I stumble over words when my 19 month old asks about feminine hygiene products, wanting to be honest but developmentally appropriate at the same time.  I try not to tell her about play dates until we are en route, because if they fall through, not only do I not want her to be disappointed, but more importantly, I don’t want to have “lied” to her about something that didn’t happen.  At her age, the subtle distinctions between out and out lies and broken promises that have good (or not so good) justifications are very difficult for her to understand.  I do let her experience disappointment for the sake of growth, but I try not to unnecessarily set her up with promises I might not be able to keep.  Even with the best of intentions, things happen.  An example was when we tried to go to her friend’s 2nd birthday party.  She adores this little boy and was excited, all dressed up in her party dress, bows in hair, shoes on, gift in hand, when we walked out to the garage to find our car battery was dead.  Two hours later, Daddy and our neighbor friend had installed a new battery and we were able to make it to the party after all, but for a short period in time, my daughter had to face her first real let down.  I had to tell her that although I had promised we were going to the party, the car was broken, and we might not be able to go.  I tried to keep my explanation clear and simple, and for the most part, she handled it really well.  If the car had not been so easily fixed, however, I would have broken a promise to her for the first time.  Granted, it was not my fault, but it did not feel good.  That guilt alone is enough to motivate me to keep my communication with my daughter as clear and straightforward and developmentally appropriate as possible.

Why is honesty so important to me?  I have watched and participated in many relationship failures in my life, and pretty much all of them are connected to the breakdown of honesty.  Whether people are dishonest with themselves or with each other, each little lie can accumulate into a tsunami of distrust that sweeps the relationship into destruction.  Big lies expect the person to both forgive and forget, and while the former is possible, the latter is hard to do when a person is forced to choose between love of another and love (or protection) of the self.  Lying to oneself to preserve a relationship will not work either; eventually, a choice must be made between preserving the last remnants of self-truth or preserving the illusion of relationship.  This is not a choice anyone wants to have to make, as it involves tremendous loss, whether it is the loss of self, or the loss of what might have been if we had been honest a bit earlier, whether it is the loss of a ideal relationship that we have been clinging onto, or whether it’s just the loss of hope that we can fix problems that have escalated out of control.  Being dishonest with oneself or another person in a relationship is a set up for failure every time.

Not only is honesty important to maintain solid, trusting relationships, it is also important for intrinsic growth and development. I believe that internal, mental, and spiritual growth only come when we are truly honest with ourselves, about our limitations, our gifts, our mistakes, and what promises we are able to keep.  Self examination leading to self-awareness is crucial for understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses.  Self-awareness can improve quality of relationships, as one is able to admit and take responsibility for conflicts and issues.  My relationship with my husband goes a whole lot smoother, when I can say, yeah, in that moment I was feeling stressed and angry about X, and I took it out on you.  Or I was being a big jerk, and I just have to fess up. It also goes a whole lot better for me when I can tell him I have an issue and he is honest enough with himself to admit that yup, his weaknesses played a role in that conflict.  In each situation, we can then find common ground, seek forgiveness, and move forward, trusting that the conflict is out in the open, rather than festering and waiting to pounce at the next opportunity.  If we can’t be honest with ourselves, we cannot be honest with other people, and the issue further spirals into an inability to achieve true intimacy.

Why do we fail at honesty?  Because we are afraid of what will happen if we risk the truth.  The other person might not be ready or able to hear a truth.  We may not be able or ready to face a truth about ourselves.  Sometimes time helps, but starting out honest can keep us from veering too far down into a thicket of brambles that are difficult to untangle.  If we can find the courage, honesty will guide us rightly, every time.  Honesty does not guarantee an absence of suffering, but it does liberate us inside, with the knowledge that we have preserved some good and noble essence, and that whatever shakes out in the aftermath of a crisis, at the very least, it will be what is true.

Through my writing, I am facing some hard truths about myself that I haven’t had the courage to deal with for years.  Afraid of failure, I veered away from my initial career interest in journalism and writing to pursue what I thought was a safe career path for a family oriented person.  How ironic that the year immediately before and immediately after I became a mother, I have also reintegrated writing into my life.  Something about bringing a life into this world has made me feel powerful enough and hopeful enough to try writing again.  For the first time in my life, the most important roles that define me: wife, mother, writer, are things at which I can utterly fail.  I have more than a little anxiety about all three roles at times, but they are who I am.  I can face the possibility of failure, because I genuinely love the meaning that motherhood, marriage, and writing bring to my life.  I am willing to risk it all, to have it all, and honestly, risk makes me feel uncomfortable.  I am learning to be okay stretching outside my comfort zone, and stop the voices in my head, those lying voices that tell me to ignore parts of myself that involve risk or potential suffering.  To deny those parts of myself in order to protect myself would be the biggest lie of all.

I am hoping that years from now, my honest approach with my daughter will give her enough trust in me to help us navigate the difficult teenage and young adult years where she will naturally push away, and even want to lie to protect her independence.  I hope she realizes that she does not have to trade one for the other with me, that honesty is always the best policy.  If she’s honest with herself, she’ll know, deep down how much, and how unconditionally, I love her.  I know we won’t be perfect, but if we can be honest, perhaps we can continue to share a sense of respect that will get us through the rough spots.  Because, honestly, I love her more than anything.

15 responses to “The Importance of Speaking Honestly to Children

  • Liz

    This is wonderfully written. Thank you for describing this delicate balance so well. This is pretty much how my last relationship failed and I really wish I had known then what I know now – that not being honest with yourself does no one any good at all.

    • pmlevitt

      Hi Liz,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Seeking truth and honesty all the time is difficult, and we all fail ourselves and our loved ones at times, no exceptions. Importance is the learning and trying again, right? 🙂 Hope to see you soon; give us a call!

  • Lora W

    So true, so true. Love you, Pam!

  • Juliana

    Beautifully written and so true! Love the picture of V too – she is adorable! 🙂

  • totsymae1011

    You know, this is quite true. i remember something my great grandmother said and that was if you tell a child you’re going to do a thing, do it. If you say you’ll give them a cookie, do so. If you say they have a spanking coming, follow through with it because they do remember what you say. Only your actions can speak that truth or lie to them.

    • pmlevitt

      I agree that following through is important. I have also learned that if I find I can’t follow through, I tell my daughter I have changed my mind and the reason why I changed my mind. Because, sometimes, with a little more info or thought given to a situation, we find that our initial impulse wasn’t the best one. I want her to learn it’s okay to admit mistakes too!

  • Annie Boreson

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of being honest. It is the one thing I tried very hard to instill in my kids, with various degrees of success. Kids remember when a parent doesn’t follow through…or makes a little white lie that “the broom is sleeping” so they can’t play with it. Thanks for the beautiful reminder for parents with children…but a good rule of thumb for ALL relationships.

    • pmlevitt

      It is so challenging to do, but hopefully will be worth the struggle in the long haul. I know I won’t be perfect, but it is good to keep your values out in front of you each day to check yourself against. Great example re: the “broom sleeping” . I know I’ve caught myself saying things like that!

  • Juliana

    I thought of you at the playground today when another Mom was trying to get her son to leave and he didn’t want to and she told him, “It’s closing now, we have to go.” Not only was she lying to her kid, but then mine start looking at me thinking the park is closing too and I’m put in this awkward position along with the other Moms and kids within earshot. I can’t stand it when people lie to kids like that.

  • MEL

    I’ve always said honesty is the best policy, even if it’s add odds with comfort zone or arbitrarily constructed social norms.

    V is doing well and normally tells us exactly what’s on her mind with no filter. Yet she has learned to lie despite our best efforts. An odd conundrum, especially since we can’t fully “reason” with her quite yet!

    • pmlevitt

      I think there is often a way to be diplomatic and compassionate while retaining honesty, although it can be difficult at times.

      I know you are referring to when we ask her if she’s going potty and she says “no,” when clearly she’s working it. It is funny how kids will instinctively do that to protect their own interests. She will grow out of this. I hope.

  • amanda

    so very true. i really like this post. my goal as a momma is to not lie to my children. which includes about the “big” things and the “little”. one of the reasons we don’t “do” santa, the easter bunny, tooth fairy, etc…is because of the lying factor.
    we’re all born with the good ole sinful nature though and even though i can be as honest as possible with my kids and hope the same in return…the lying still happens. it’s about our reactions to it, and how we deal with it that really matters then.
    again, great post!!

    • pmlevitt

      We’ve been considering the fine line between fantasy and lying ourselves. It is a challenging line to walk, so I really get your decision with your kids. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts, esp. your last line about how we react to the lies our kids tell. That will be interesting to sort through as my little one gets older! Thanks for sharing!

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