Raising Truthful Kids
By Elisa Medhus, MD

Most of us try to squeeze the truth out of our kids through lengthy, exasperating and often futile truth-seeking missions. Picture a secret agent in a dark room with a 500-watt bulb shining in his face and bamboo splinters and other torture instruments on a nearby tray. Behind the agent looms a hulk of a man with a thick accent warning him, "Vee have vays of making you talk."

The search for the truth
Adults sometimes use similar tactics on children when they suspect or even know for certain that they're lying. But kids are good. Really good. James Bond should be so tight lipped. I don't think anyone, short of certified masters in torture with state-of-the-art equipment, can wrest a confession from a child. So when we say things like, "Did you spill this milk?" or "Fess up. Which one of you shaved Fido with my razor?" they're just going to wind up feeling ashamed, angry or scared -- all without spilling the beans.

Depending on the crime and on whether another sibling took the rap for them, our truth-seeking missions can even make kids feel like incorrigible criminals. Children who are habitually coerced into confessing learn to fear the truth and find better ways to cover their tracks.

When kids are very young, their lies are not very sophisticated. I remember when mine were little, they'd walk past me with their hands behind their backs saying something like, "Don't look, Mommy. I don't have a candy bar in my hands." They get a little older and their lies are less obvious. In other words, they start blaming their misbehavior and mistakes on the family pets (now you know why your kid keeps begging you to buy a dog).

A few years later, they point their quivering fingers at their siblings. But when kids become teenagers, their conniving involves strategic planning that requires the cooperation of their friends, the comparing and contrasting of stories, the use of cue cards and cheat sheets, hours of practicing their best poker faces in front of the mirror, and the recruitment of undercover agents. The Pentagon should be so sophisticated!

What happens when we try to wring a confession from a kid who's actually telling the truth? As unfathomable as this is, it can actually happen from time to time. When my fourth oldest child, Lukas, was in preschool, he and another classmate were painting on easels draped with large sheets of white paper just outside the classroom door. After a while, his friend went back into the classroom to wash her hands. When the teacher went outside to check on Lukas, there he was, brush full of dripping paint standing right next to an elaborate painting -- on the brick exterior of the school.

Talk about getting caught with a smoking gun in your hand! The teacher insisted that Lukas confess. Over and over again, she'd demand, "Tell the truth. I know you did it." Eventually, he gave in and said he did it. The teacher had him clean up the mess, and when I came to pick him up after school, she proclaimed, in a victorious tone reminiscent of Mohammad Ali, how she had cleverly gotten the truth out of him. I asked Lukas what had happened, and he told me, "I really didn't do it, Mommy. Taylor did. I just had to go to the bathroom really bad, and so I told the teacher what she wanted me to say."

Now, 10 times out of nine (the new math) I'll take the teacher's word over my kids', but after overhearing him on the telephone asking Taylor why she let him take the rap, I was certain he wasn't guilty. To top it off, he told me, "Santa Claus sees everything. At least he knows I'm telling the truth." That next morning, I fussed at his teacher for accusing him unjustly.

Responsibility
Now that I'm older and (maybe) wiser, I know I should have let Lukas deal with the injustice on his own. After all, I can't rescue my children from all adversity, unfair or not. It would have been better to show Lukas I had faith in him to handle the incident on his own by acknowledging his feelings, giving him some love and affection, and encouraging him to take care of the problem himself. What would I have done in the teacher's position? I would have said, "There's paint all over the wall. It's not so important who did it. Both of you were out here painting, so I expect both of you to clean this mess up. Whoever didn't paint the wall should have seen to it that the other one didn't either. We all take care of each other in this class." Look at the advantages to this approach:
1. They both learn to extend their sense of responsibility beyond themselves instead of adopting an "every man for himself" attitude.
2. Both kids learn to feel comfortable with the truth.
3. Because the rap isn't pinned unjustly on the innocent (Lukas,) the responsible party (Taylor) won't have huge guilt trip to deal with.
4. Neither kid learns to fear the truth as that "horrible monster that gets you into trouble."
5. Both children learn to focus on the solution, not the blame.

Here is another incident that happened in my own house. One day, the kids rounded up all three of our dogs to play "doggie dentist." They borrowed my white doctor's coat, some of my medical equipment -- at least anything that was disposable, could be sterilized, or was broken anyway -- and set up the big operation in one of their rooms. I heard all sorts of commotion up there --laughing, shouting important orders, rolling around on the floor in hysterics (and believe me, it wasn't coming from those poor dogs.)

Later that evening, I found my toothbrush and Water Pik missing from the bathroom (insert sound effects from Psycho here). My biggest mistake wasn't pressuring the pilferer to confess, it was asking for what (and on whom) they had used my dental equipment. Ugh. What we don't know won't hurt us. On the bright side, I've never seen those dogs with whiter teeth!

When children do confess to something on their own, give them an "I" message that acknowledges this remarkable (and rare as chicken lips) internal achievement. "I admire the courage you showed by telling the truth. I know how difficult that can be sometimes, even for grownups."

Structure your discipline so that children don't feel they're being punished for telling the truth. Simply having them correct their mistakes without giving them the third degree can prevent this misunderstanding. For example, they can clean their spills, pay for broken possessions, apologize for hurt feelings, and so on.

We want children to respect the truth, not feel threatened by it. Those who perceive the truth as an evil menace become adults without a healthy and realistic sense of justice -- adults who are afraid or unwilling to accept responsibility for their own mistakes. So, what can we say instead? Rather than saying, "Did you spill this milk?" try making an impartial observation and providing objective information.

"I see milk has been spilled on the table. When milk isn't cleaned up right away, it sours and gets really sticky." If they protest with, "But I didn't do it!" you can counter with, "It's not important who did it. It's important that it gets cleaned up." By focusing on the solution rather than the blame, not only do we teach children to do the same, we avoid handing out accusations that can inflame the situation.

You might also add objective information that reinforces those principles you want children to adopt in their lives: "Our family values the truth," or "We believe in telling the truth in our family."

When children learn to value the truth, they develop a moral conscience that rivals that of most adults. If we people the world with enough of these gems, perhaps we can raise the decaying morality in the world out of the mire and onto a higher road.

About the author: Elisa Medhus, MD, is a mother of five and a family physician with 13 years experience dealing with the issues that today's families face. She is also the author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves, Raising Everyday Heroes, and Hearing is Believing, to be published in April 2004. Although she retired from medicine to homeschool and be a full time mother to her children, she still has a large following of former patients who frequently call or drop by her home for medical advice, comfort or help. Her work has been featured on national broadcast and print outlets including Good Morning America, The Houston Chronicle, a Seattle morning show, The Houston Post. She resides in Houston, Texas with her husband, her five children, their three dogs, and other transients from the plant and animal worlds.