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Teaching Children Not to Lie

Teaching Children Not to Lie


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.

Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist, writer, and author of Dancing Through Life, a book for Jewish women. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.
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tryingForCalm Pittsburgh, PA March 24, 2012

hardest part of lying My guy is still pretty naive and routinely tells the truth or quickly fesses up 'it is pretend'. But I really have to try hard to control my disbelief and provoking of neighbor's daughters. They are spanked for 'grave' transgressions and I think they then get trapped in lie with me. Like the 7 year old saw my son in his karate uniform. My son joined just 3 classes ago to be with former daycare friend and has no clue about 'fighting' or 'belts'. The girl started in on 'what belt are you?' I'm a black belt. etc... Now I know her parents and she never took any classes but I felt this need to prove her wrong and she kept sticking to lie and finally I said 'well, I'm going to ask your dad?' then marched up to do so but saw the panic in her eyes and stopped. I'm 32 and was baiting and annoyed by a 7 year old. thanks for prospective. Reply

Yocheved Portland, OR November 17, 2011

Teaching Children Not to Lie Thank you for a well-written and helpful article! With a 4-yr-old, I am aware of incidences of "fibbing" which are efforts to push forth autonomy and to test limits. I believe it is helpful to play along with many of these obvious and unharmful fibs, i.e. to win an unearned point in a game, while letting the child know that you see beyond their words but are willing to let them win or boast or whatever the case may be. At the same time, I can emphasize that lying is not appropriate in the majority of situations.

Thanks to Hashem that parenting is such a drawn-out process and we have time to learn as we go! Reply

Anonymous Toronto, Canada November 17, 2011

Good method ... This sounds like a good method: Be aware of how one is setting up a child to lie in self-defense, and phrase one's responses accordingly to minimize the impetus to lie.

When the kids get older one can get into the subtleties of the technique to show how to avoid unnecessary forms of social pressure that encourage lying.

Still, there are times when lying is a positive moral choice, but they tend to be much more exceptional situations instead of the default mode of response in socially awkward and potentially accusatory situations. Reply

Anonymousie near Chicago November 16, 2011

Essential LIE? I am very grateful my parents taught me how to AVOID telling a lie, instead of teaching me how to ignore G_d's law. There are many creative ways to answer dangerous, careless, and uncomfortable questions with truth. It is a bigger job to learn how to do that. Creator is much more important than wiggling out of an uncomfortable situation with a lie. Never trust someone who thinks a harmless lie exists..

One woman, confronted by the SS about whether or not she was hiding a boy. Wanting to avoid a lie, she prayed and repeated to them to look for themselves. Trusting G_d is always the best way to do things. Reply

Anonymous prague, cz November 16, 2011

good insights for all ages and peoples is good article. shows how to change a situation by making an open forum without putting someone on the defense.

when you express trust in a person, then the person is more likely tore respond in positive manner. If you put up a big question, "is that really so? are you telling the truth?" you negate the person, making it harder fro open communication. When a speaker senses that no matter what he says will be dismissed, there is no more reason for discussion and even if he has something important to say, the opportunity is lost. With kids, it's just as important because things can happen to a child that the child can't easily explain but tries to verbalize. Sometimes its critical information. trust and openness will last a lifetime; negation will lock the person out forever. maybe if I had courage to talk to my brother and told him I'd been molested by neighbor. kids are easy victims of exploitation and manipulation everywhere. trust and acceptance important to life. Reply

Anonymous Delray Beach, Florida November 16, 2011

Teaching Children Not to Lie Yes, it's essential that children not lie to their parents--but sometimes they have to lie to others. They need to learn the difference. In my childhood my father was bringing home no money at all--he was a union organizer and leading strikes, which the Welfare Dept. (then called Home Relief) considered refusing to work. We had to learn what to say when the social worker came around and looked into the pots to see whether we were cooking meat or just potatoes (it was usually potatoes). We learned to childishly say, "I don't know" when asked "Where's your father?", although we knew perfectly well he was leading the picket line. When the next-door neighbor asked, "Does my new dress make me look fat?" we knew to say, "Oh no, you look terrific." Lying is sometimes absolutely necessary, and we do need to teach our children how and when to do it. Reply

Joan Brigham charlotte, NC/USA November 16, 2011

Thought this was really worth reading! Reply

Anonymous Wets Palm Beach, FL November 15, 2011

Takings risks with children Even in "safe" neighborhoods sending a 6 year old to supervise play with a younger sibling is considered "risky". The responsibility for the safety and well-being of the younger child sets the elder up for potentially traumatic experience at the most ad confrontational experience at the least. Not good judgment on Mama's part - even if her eyes are always on the window. Reply

annonymous ottawa, canada November 15, 2011

Weaving in the Torah I love how you become aware how interwoven the lessons of the Torah are with your life. I also deeply relate about wanting to shift the momentum from one way of reacting to another way of responding. Catching myself over and over again is what led me to gradually turn the boat around - not perfect, but wow - SO MUCH DIFFERENT than before. Quality of life improves proportionately to our ability to do this. I hope you remember to be forgiving of yourself as well. You're dealing with a demanding brood and it's bound to get to you from time to time. Hopefully you're taking time out to relax too. How do you deal with the sabbath as a busy mother? Forgive my terminology, I'm not Jewish - just learning. Reply

Anonymous Baltimore, Maryland November 15, 2011

The Little Things This is a sweet article about an important aspect of parenting. Your empathy with your child is beautiful - you provided wonderful, real-life examples. And it's true, we can't teach what we don't all the more reason to be thoroughly honest w/ ourselves. Just something to think about, with all kindness, child development is not determined by "neighborhood," it's determined by maturity and cognitive development - the brain needs years to grow and make wise decisions, particularly in matters of safety. A six year old is not sixteen - not in any neighborhood. Reply

Christopher Wright Toruń, Poland November 15, 2011

Teaching Children not to Lie Rahab, as I remember, lied and was rewarded by the Lord.

There is, I believe a time to lie - when talking to the gestapo, in order to save a life, or in order to deceive an enemy.

Would you agree, please? Reply

Anonymous Denver, CO / USA November 15, 2011

I have a question about the ice pop example Ms. Mizrahi. Once the parent found out that the teacher did not want ice pops for the entire class, I suppose it would be best to tell the child that you know this story was (a lie – that sounds harsh) not exactly the truth. Do you agree – if a child says something that’s not the truth then it needs to be addressed so they can learn that this behavior is not acceptable. What words would you use to confront the child? Reply

Gilah Amersfoort, Netherland November 15, 2011

Thank you Very inspiering! Very nice to learn chinuch from the parshe and show how to use it in daily live, thank you. Reply

Anonymous Studio City, USA November 14, 2011

How to teach your children not to lie... Ask them no questions...and they will not tell you any lies....sounds like a very good way to teach them not to lie...
for this amazingly important information. Usually we tell children the story of the boy who cried wolf...and they learn that by lying the boy...caused the whole town to fail to help him...when the wolf finally really was there! Often he cried wolf...and the town ran to help him...and he laughed, it was a joke....but later we learn the lesson.
In that story; we use i teach children that in that town, when he cried for HELP and they came to help him....often there was no it was his own fault; they just got tired of leaving their jobs and running to HELP a boy, who lied! did not speak well for the town as they all learned later...when the wolf ate the little boy...sadly its a grim story, but it did have a moral outcome....teaching children not to a good thing...I guess, even if the story ends on a sad note? Reply

Malka ny November 13, 2011

From the articles that you write I can tell that you are such an amazing mother. I was so inspired by how you teach your children to care about others and not let someone wait too long for the swing and how you value integrity. Your children will benefit from this and hashem will reward you. You are a role model for all Jewish mothers and for me when one day I will become a mother. Reply

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