Teaching Truthfulness

One of my daughter’s New Year’s resolutions is to be more honest. I admire her for her recognition that truthfulness is a dying virtue and her attempt to recapture it for herself. I have been thinking and writing a lot about honesty lately. And I have been contemplating how easily and often we lie. Robert Feldman, in his book, the Liar in Your Life, says that we lie frequently, with ease, to friend and foe alike. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman say in their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, that we not only teach our children to be liars, we teach them to be good liars. But kids don’t really have to be good liars because Feldman says that we are not very good at detecting a good liar. We, as parents, want to believe our children. So we give them a very wide veracity birth, so to speak. 

But truth is still important. A person is still only as good, reliable and credible as their word. So how can we be better at championing the truth in our households? How can we tell our children to be truthful and mean it all of the time? How can we teach etiquette and polite behavior and truthfulness while being consistent?

Feldman has a pragmatic approach to getting to the truth in others, which he calls “AHA”.  AHA stands for Active Honesty Assessment. By this, he means the following, as I understand it: 

1. Know when to verify and when to let it go. It is important to decide which information you feel is important and which is not. The information that you need to be true, you verify. The info that is not so important, you take with a grain of salt. My young adult daughter just left town with a bunch of college friends. She told me who she was traveling with and where. I need to know that these facts are true, for her safety and my sanity. So I am going to make a few calls; be at the door when she gets picked up; and require a daily phone call from her. I need to have the address of where she will be and I need to know when she expects to be back home.  I am not going to stalk her or call her every hour.  But every time my kids go off like this I think of the poor Baylor University basketball player who was killed and missing for days before anyone even started looking. And poor Casey Johnson, who was dead in her apartment for days before being sought after. I know I have digressed. But you get my point.I don’t need to know what route she is taking or even that she changed out of the conservative jeans and blouse she was wearing when she left into a short skirt and a tank top. That info, though it would be disturbing, is beyond me at this point. But I do need to know where she is and with whom.

2. Wean yourself from feel-good feedback. Be honest with yourself about whether you are seeking the truth or just seeking the answer you want to hear. Our children know what we want to hear and they are happy to give it to us if it gets them out of hot water. Are you unwittingly asking your child to lie to you to make you feel better?  Or do you want the truth? Feldman calls these feel-good fibs “reassuring lies.”  We all know the trap question, “Do I look fat in this dress?” It’s a no win question for any family member to answer. Don’t ask it and then sulk if your spouse or child tells you “yes, you look fat!” 

3. Encourage and cultivate truthful interaction from others by letting them know that you value the truth and are looking for more than just feel-good feedback. Be very explicit with your children about your desire to know the truth and then positively reinforce their truthful behavior. You don’t have to reward truthfulness when the truth is an admission of some wrongdoing. But you really must acknowledge your child’s willingness to spit out the gory and difficult details. Being honest is hard to do when you know that punishment awaits.  Perhaps the best solution is to constantly give positive verbal acknowledgment of truth-telling, but then come down like a hammer when and if you discover that they have lied. 

4. Model truthful behavior. If your kids see you stretch and mangle the truth with and for others, they will do the same. Period.  They are watching and listening always, taking in your every move. This is why your kids know you so well, even at very young ages.  So when you fudge the school medical form or tell a friend you love her new haircut when everyone knows it  makes her look otherworldly, you are teaching, teaching, teaching all the while. Scary, but painfully true. 
5. Forgive and choose a more meaningful means for trusting. When you have been profoundly betrayed by a lie, the emotional and psychological toll is huge and widespread. Often, a betrayed person’s ability to trust is forever altered. This, according to Feldman, can be both good and bad.  Bad because you feel as though you can never trust again.  Good because you can decide to cultivate a more mature kind of trust. What needs to happen once your trust is lost is that you must move from that natural and more visceral form of trusting that you felt before the betrayal to a more realistic and decisive kind of trust. This requires a choice and a leap of faith. But ultimately this mature and cultivated trust can be more enduring. Children need to be taught the enormous costs of dishonesty and betrayal. They don’t have the developed barometer to gauge the difference between a little white lie and a whopper. Also kids, like most adults for that matter, do not realize the potentially far-reaching effects of even the smallest lie. We must teach the value of honesty and the coping skills for dealing with dishonesty from others.

Once we acknowledge that we are all liars—that our very social constructs rely on our dishonesty and support and encourage it; and once we acknowledge that our kids are liars and they learned most of their lessons in lying from us —then we have to accept that we teach our children about truth primarily and most profoundly by how we deal with the daily lies that we ourselves encounter. This is a harsh reality but one that we must face if we are to deal with our children’s untruths with at least our credibility in tact.

At Blogher, I talk about technology and truth and ask, Did the Truth Die in 2009? Click over and see if you agree with my analysis of truth in the media!


  1. This is a great post. I aim to be more honest also. Not that I'm a pathological liar, but often times I do things that people ask me to do even though I don't want to. This happens a lot at work. In my attempt to be a team player, I often allow people to misuse me. But no more! Taking a cue from your daughter, I'm going to aim to be more authentic. My no will be no and my yes will be yes!

  2. Gina Carroll says:

    Krystal, Thanks for your comment. Authenticity as a New Year's resolution is awesome. It's a little more all-encompassing than just promising to be more honest, isn't it? I think it means that I am not only going to speak the truth, but that truth will be reflective of who I really am. I love that..count me in!

  3. Great advice that I can definitely use in my household. I especially identify with needing to wean myself from feel-good feedback. I just bookmarked your blog, and I'll be coming back.

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