It was early one Shabbat morning. My two oldest children wanted me to take them to the park, but the baby was sleeping. I looked at my oldest, my six-year-old, and instructed him, “You can take Frida Tamar (his younger sister) to the park for ten minutes and then come back.” (The park is within eyesight of my kitchen window, and getting there doesn’t involve crossing any streets. Also, in the neighborhood where I live, in terms of taking care of younger siblings, a six-year-old is like a sixteen-year-old!) I gave him my watch and they were off. About three minutes later they were back, arguing.
“Wow, that was quick. What happened?”
“He made me get off the swing.”
I was—provoking someone to not tell me the truth“I pushed her on it until one hundred, and then she had to come off, just like you do, Mommy.”
“But I do that only when other kids are waiting in line. Were there other kids waiting?” I said the last part a bit accusingly, and I realized that the moment I put the question out, there I was—provoking someone to not tell me the truth. My daughter answered no, my son answered yes. I thought to myself, “Why did I just do that? Couldn’t I have just left it by giving them the information needed, and by not setting a trap for them to lie?”
It’s something that I am working on. I catch myself all the time. It’s those little questions. Your child went to the bathroom: “Did you wash your hands?” You see them eating: “Did you say the blessing before eating that cookie?” One of your children comes crying: “Did you hit your sister?” “Did you give the teacher the note I sent with you?”
Let me ask you: when a person puts you on the spot, what is your instinct to do? Defend yourself, of course, whether you did it or not. Can we expect our children to behave differently?
The Torah teaches us an alternative approach. Tamar, the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, was being inaccurately accused of a crime. She had evidence to prove her innocence, but didn’t directly confront Judah with it (which would prove not only her innocence, but his guilt). Instead, “she sent word to [Judah]: . . . ‘Recognize, if you please, whose are this signet, this wrap and this staff [the evidence].’ Judah recognized; and he said, ‘She is right; it is from me . . .’” (Genesis 38:25–26). The commentators explain that Tamar reasoned, “If he will admit on his own, let him admit. And if not, let them burn [punish] me, but I will not embarrass him.”
What was the result of this incident? It was decreed that the kings of Israel would come forth from the offspring of Judah and Tamar—from her, for her modesty and her way of handling the situation; and from him, for his full recognition of his mistake.
Telling the truth is a fundamental Torah principle. So how do we get our children to do it? The first step is by building trust. They need to trust us and we need to trust them (and show them that we do). The second step is to accustom them to telling them the truth, or at the very least, to not let lying become a habit. How? For example, don’t ask confrontational questions—“Did you wash your hands?” Instead try, “Don’t forget to wash your hands!” If they already did, they will most likely say, “I already did.”
They need to trust us and we need to trust them (and show them that we do)Your child comes home with an incredible story. Preschool- and kindergarten-age children are not yet capable of distinguishing between a true and a fictional story. For them, fantasy is reality. He tells you that teacher told him that he has to bring ice pops tomorrow for his entire class. Try not to express disbelief—“Really? Are you sure? Is that true?” Instead say, “Wow, I would have loved it if my teacher told me that when I was in school.” Later, simply call the teacher and find out if you really do need to bring those ice pops or not. This way, if it’s not true and he was only expressing what he wished the teacher had told him, you don’t trap him by making him answer in a lie, “Yes, she really said that.”
It’s those little things, those daily things, that make all the difference. You yourself are careful with your words. You fulfill your promises. You buy the ice cream when you say you will. You tell him, “I can’t talk right now,” instead of “Tell them I’m not home.” Our children will learn from this. They’ll realize that words are important, and become accustomed to telling the truth.