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Stories and lies: Teaching our kids the difference

No child is too young to learn the importance of honesty

No child is too young to learn the importance of honesty

No child is too young to be taught the importance of telling the truth. However, sometimes, creativity can be confused with dishonesty in very young children, who cannot discern the difference between a lie and a carefully crafted fiction. I know this, first hand, from watching my son navigate the muddy waters of trying to figure out an extremely dramatic and ingenious toddler. Imagination is a child’s most sacred possession and sadly, as he grows up, we teach him to stop using it... to conform to social norms.

“Stop making that face,” we say... “Stop dancing around”... “Stop talking to yourself”...

Glad I never listened to that one... Maagy might not exist!

My granddaughter did not pretend to be a lion... she WAS a lion! Her stories went on for days, even at an early age, and she really believed in her handiworks. In about the second or third grade, she came home from school with a tall tale about how she and a little boy had got into a scuffle. According to her, the boy called her names and pushed her (or some similar circumstances) and, when her parents became more insistent on the exact nature of the offenses, she saw an opportunity to embellish her yarn and it spun out of control.

Skeptical of the details, her parents went to the teacher and, eventually, had a meeting with the boy’s family, during which, the truth came out. Of course, there was punishment for the false accusations, but I cautioned my son to go a little easy and be mindful of the intent of the crime. She never set out to harm the other child, only to create an exciting story. She had no infraction or secret, of her own, to cover with a lie.

So how does one help a child to understand the difference between her fantasies and a falsehood? After all, we perpetrate illusions upon our children, all the time... Santa Claus... the Easter Bunny... the Tooth Fairy. Of course, there are those parents, who simply refuse to buy into the myths and never give their children the option of believing... certainly, their choice... but I, for one, am a big supporter of the legends and think a bit of good old “wives’ tale” has a place in the hearts and minds of children.

So, don’t even try to argue the non-existence of the old man in red!

The key to teaching youngsters, even at an early age, is to understand that a lie is meant to cover a misdeed or mistake by redirecting the attention... deflecting the heat of scrutiny... “Billy, were you lighting matches in the field?”, the fireman asked. “Nooo. It wasn’t me!”

Read more: Child Behavior: Should Parents Punish Children When They Lie?

“Who was it? Was it a rabbit? Did a rabbit light the fire?” “Yes! It was the rabbit! The rabbit lit the fire!” True story of someone I love very much! The instinct for self-preservation is strong, in humans. We all learn, very early on, how to hide our tracks... save our own skins... by bending the truth. In this case, the fireman gave Billy an “out”. Billy took it immediately, combining human nature with a bit of fantasy.

Princess Maagy, the main character in my book, Just Maagy, is spoiled and known for stretching the truth, upon occasion. When she gets caught in one of her deceptions, she remembers what her father, King Henry, had always told her:

“Always tell the truth, even if you think there is a good reason to lie. Lying is like a spider’s web. It binds you up and holds you captive. The more lies you tell, the tighter the strings. Never tell the first and you won’t feel the need for the second.”

Most children, especially very young ones, tell fibs from a relatively innocent place. They just want to avoid trouble. The trick is to gently instill the need for ultimate trust... beyond a shadow of doubt... there is no punishment for truth nearly as bad as that for a lie. If trust is lost, it’s very hard to get it back.

“I will never lie to you. I expect you to trust me. I want to trust you, always. So, let’s make a pact that you will never, ever lie to me.” Then live what you promise! Don’t let your child see you tell an untruth. Children learn what they live... if they live with dishonesty, they will be dishonest, no matter the rhetoric.

As for the aspect of creativity and storytelling... encourage it! When a tale is being spun a bit too much, refrain from scolding and labeling it an untruth. Instead, interject with, “Wow, that’s a great story! It that real or are you making up a wonderful adventure? You know, you should write down your stories. You’ll enjoy reading them, again, someday.” Reiterate that stories are fine... lies, however, hurt people, sometimes, and damage trust, so always know the difference between the two. This is my two cents worth of parenting advice!

Virginia Stringer’s new novel, “Just Maagy,” teaches children and young adults the importance of honesty, trust, humility, and personal and societal responsibility in a fun, entertaining way.