| Family First Feature |

Beyond Belief

What steps can we take to help our children become honest and trustworthy?


was the phone call no parent wants to get.

“Mrs. Gross,” the man from the makolet down the block had said. “We have footage of your son Dovi. He’s been shoplifting. Can you come down to talk?”

Leaving the bedtime bedlam behind, Chavi grabbed her purse and hurried to speak with her son’s accuser.

“Were you shaking?” asked one of her listeners as Chavi recounted the story.

“Not a bit,” said Chavi. “I knew Dovi hadn’t done it.” And then, as an afterthought: “But if he’d called me about Yanky? Well…”

In today’s positive parenting milieu, it might not be politically correct to admit that we know our kids have some bad habits. But in order to guide our children toward good choices, we need to be aware — sometimes painfully aware — of our children’s failings.

We all want to be that parent who will coolly look the authority figure in the eye and say, “I know my son. He would never do that.”

But how do we get there? How do we build a mutually trusting relationship, where we can fully trust their judgment and integrity, and they can trust us with their confidences?

Creating a Culture of Truth

Unsurprisingly, the most basic step in training your children not to lie is not to lie. More surprisingly, many well-meaning parents overlook this step, says Adina Soclof, a Cleveland-based parenting educator.

Don’t instruct a child to tell a caller you’re not home when it’s just not a good time; don’t fudge a child’s age to get the cheaper theme park ticket.

If your child asks for information that you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t offer them a false version. “I don’t know how to explain this to a nine-year-old,” is a perfectly acceptable answer.

In addition to modeling honest behavior, talk about it, too. Whenever the opportunity arises, express your admiration for someone who owned up to wrongdoing; talk about why the politician’s empty promises backfire. Make sure your children are hearing, in ways that don’t relate to them, how important honesty is to you.

“Usually, the first time they hear about truth is when you say, ‘Stop lying,’” says Mrs. Soclof.

Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, an educational consultant and parenting expert with decades of chinuch experience as both principal and teacher, concurs. “For physical illnesses, we vaccinate kids before they get sick. Why should this be different? Why should we wait until there’s a problem to teach honesty?” he asks.

A principal of a Lakewood elementary school once called him about a troubling issue they were dealing with: the third graders were stealing and lying. “Have they ever been taught about honesty?” asked Rabbi Ginsberg. “She said, ‘C’mon, every kid knows this.’ But we’re making an assumption about an incredibly important thing.”

Ever an educator, Rabbi Ginsberg maintains that raising honest kids requires proactive teaching. So he sat down and prepared an honesty lesson plan, which he delivered in the school. Parents who are skilled pedagogues may want to do something similar (Rabbi Ginsberg’s lesson plans for parents can be requested from Mishpacha), but parents without classroom skills can be equally effective through proactive conversations. Talking about the meaning of integrity and why it matters can inoculate a child before the temptation for dishonesty strikes.

Many times, parents unwittingly set their children up for falsehood. Every single expert singled out accusatory questions: “Who broke the vase?” or “Did you leave the milk on the counter?” as one of the best ways to elicit a lie. Avoid backing your child into corners with pointed questions like these; instead comment on what you know or observe. “I see Play-Doh in the carpet,” is a much better choice than, “Did you take the Play-Doh into the living room?” says Mrs. Soclof.

Parents should also make it as easy as possible for children to share uncomfortable truths. Never, ever punish a child who volunteers information about something they did wrong. By punishing the child who tells the truth, you’re incentivizing him to lie in the future.

“Any time the child tells the truth, she should walk away feeling like a total winner,” says Simi Yellen, who coaches parents through her Raise the Bar parenting program. You can ask the child to make amends, like cleaning up the mess or returning the item, and plan to prevent a reoccurrence, but a child should never feel they suffered for their honesty.

Similarly, if a child shares an unpleasant truth (that the dress does, in fact, make Grandma look fat), don’t come down hard on her, because that will send confusing messages; she’ll have a hard time figuring out why you talk so much about truth but expect her to lie this time. You may want to educate her at a different time about tact and when to stay quiet, but don’t squelch her honest impulses!

When the Truth Emerges

When — not if, but when — you realize your child has broken your trust, breathe, says Mrs. Yellen. Don’t catastrophize. While disappointing, this behavior is well within the normal range for most children. The occasional falsehood doesn’t portend a criminal future. Mrs. Yellen advises parents to completely ignore the deception.

You also shouldn’t praise them for being truthful; that should be the clear default. “The same way you’d never tell a kid, ‘Wow, I’m so proud of you for not pulling a stepstool into the bathroom to climb up to the medicine cabinet and sample all the pills,’ you also never want to introduce deceit into their consciousness.” Saying “Thank you for telling me the truth” makes it seem like lying is a viable, if poor, option.

If you need to address a situation in which a child lied, focus only on what needs to happen, not the deceit. If your child insists it was a robber who broke in and colored on the wall in crayon before escaping with the special Shabbos chocolate you’d been saving, don’t call them out on the untruth, says Mrs. Yellen. “Say, you may wish a robber had done that, but now here’s what we need to do to clean up.”

You can, however, talk about what you want to see more of. So if Eli was supposed to meet his chavrusa at shul and instead went for pizza, you might say, “I understood you were going to be out learning. Please realize that I trust you, so I need you to uphold that. Since I believe what you tell me, I need to know if your plans change.”

“We all know that children live up to expectations. If you say, ‘You’re a liar, I can’t trust you,’ you’re helping to create a liar,” explains Mrs. Yellen. “You’ve given him permission to lie, because you don’t trust him anyway.”

There’s no need to be a detective and look for evidence of your child’s claims, says Mrs. Yellen, unless you have a strong reason to doubt they’re telling the truth. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a basic fact-check. You don’t need to present it as suspicion, but if your son insists everyone’s parents are buying them MP3 players with video, and you’re skeptical, you can casually mention that you plan to ask on the class chat where all the mothers bought theirs.

Still, says Rabbi Ginsberg, try not to probe or play “gotcha!” You never want to catch a child in a lie, he says, and create a self-fulfilling label of “liar.”

If you do realize your child has been untruthful, it’s important to consider what may have prompted the untruth. We can assume that most children would like to be honest — let’s face it, it feels better to be straightforward and not have to keep track of lies. So, if your child did lie, there’s probably something driving the behavior. “He needs a fix for a problem, not education about integrity,” says Mrs. Soclof.

Was your child feeling ashamed to admit the truth? Deprived of something he desperately wanted? While you don’t have to supply the child with everything he wants, it’s worth considering if there are factors driving your child to lie that can be easily addressed or ameliorated.

The Raconteur

Not every story about things that didn’t happen is a lie. Until about age five, kids have a very hard time separating fact from fantasy.

When your child prattles happily about something patently untrue, you can validate her excitement without bursting her bubble, says Mrs. Yellen. “Your counselor brought in so much candy she needed a pickup truck to deliver it? Wow, what a story! Do you want to draw a picture of what it might have looked like if it could have really happened?”

As a child matures, if she’s still spinning tall tales to get her point across, it may be time to start giving her a reality check. At a neutral time, try asking, “How do you think you’re doing with telling over realistic stories? Do you think you’re detail-oriented, or do you like to embellish a little?” Once you’ve assessed how aware she is, you can start offering gentle guidance: “You know, there are times when parents really need to know the exact details of what happened, not just how it felt.”

Once she begins to understand the concept, you can use it in the moment. When she says that not a single girl was willing to talk to her the entire day, you can draw on previous discussions to say, “Remember how we talked about how there are times when precision matters? This is one of those times.”

This way, says Mrs. Soclof, you can slowly help your child differentiate between sharing feelings and experiences, and sharing the actual information people need to understand situations.

Truth on Trial

Like most topics in parenting, honesty and trust are much easier to navigate when they’re abstract ideas with no real-world implications. But life can be messy, and sometimes a parent is caught in between multiple children, or a child and authority figure, each of whom has a very different story to tell.

Siblings often come bearing tales about their sibling’s misdeeds on the bus, playground, or at school. If Moishy insists that Chaim was chutzpadig to the bus driver, what’s a parent to do?

“First, tell the tattler to mix out, unless the behavior is seriously unsafe,” says Mrs. Soclof. Your reaction should focus on solutions and education, not justice. You can talk to the kids over supper, saying that you weren’t there and don’t know what happened, but you do want to make sure everyone remembers appropriate bus etiquette. Share your expectations and review family rules without pointing fingers or trying to ferret out the facts.

Sometimes, the accusing parties don’t live under your roof. When a school, teacher, or community member complains about a child’s behavior, it can be much trickier to figure out how to respond. In these cases, there are two rules to balance, says Mrs. Yellen: always back the school, and never confront your child. What happens when the two collide?

When you get that phone call, repeat the teacher’s report to your child in a nonjudgmental way. “Mrs. Cohen called today.” If he protests innocence, or even ignorance of the misdeed, don’t accuse, simply repeat what you’ve been told, without taking a side.

When your child shares his story, should you believe it?

In general, says Rabbi Ginsberg, the risks of not believing a child — in any area — are much higher than the risks of believing him. It can never hurt to show empathy and understanding.

“No kid will grow up to say, ‘Why were you so nice about it? You should have known I was lying!’” he says, “but he will feel betrayed and abandoned if you don’t believe his story.” If further discussion shows the child was less than truthful, you can always change course, but once you’ve shown your child you don’t believe him, it will be very hard to undo that damage.

At the same time, be careful not to disparage the school. Things aren’t black and white, and teaching your child that the same incident can be viewed from multiple perspectives is a valuable life lesson.

While showing your child empathy and trust, ask a couple of sympathetic questions before rushing to judgment: “Is there anything else I should know before speaking to Rebbi? What will Rebbi tell me when I tell him you have no idea why you were sent out today?”

If the child’s story doesn’t jibe with the other party’s, or if you have reason to doubt it, Rabbi Ginsberg recommends steering the conversation away from the exact details of what happened to finding solutions. Can Avi be careful about looking around the classroom during a test to avoid the appearance of cheating? Even if it really is never Ezzy’s fault, does it make sense to hang out with different kids during recess if somehow there’s always fighting?

“Tell him, ‘Let’s see what we can do to make sure there’s no raglayim ladavar,” he suggests. “It’s not about now, it’s about his life. The Torah tells everyone, ‘V’asisa hayashar v’hatov’ and ‘v’hiyisem n’kiyim.’” Instead of focusing on proving who was wrong and who was right, focus on teaching your child the skills he needs to stay out of trouble in the first place.

By modeling integrity, allowing space for our children’s mistakes, and communicating our trust in their essential goodness, we provide our children with an environment in which they can grow into truthful people.

And when in doubt?  “Always give the benefit of the doubt,” says Mrs. Soclof. “Giving the benefit of the doubt creates a culture of warmth and love in the home.”

You might get it wrong sometimes. We all do. But your confidence in that your child is bigger than that, better than that — and it’s what gives him the wings to grow bigger and better.

The Unbelievable Accusation

One painful exception to the “normal” phenomenon of kids bending the truth is the disclosure of child molestation. “Molestation is a crime empowered by silence,” says Mrs. Debbie Fox, LCSW, founder and director of Magen Yeladim International Child Safety Institute. “When the silence is broken, it’s often a matter of the child’s word against an adult’s. The stakes are high: failing to believe an abused child, or believing a child who has made a false accusation, both have heavy consequences for the child, the alleged offender, and the family.”

Experts in the field unanimously urge parents to believe victims. But why are children, who aren’t always paragons of integrity, so much less likely to lie about abuse?

While we might be inclined to take some of our kids’ stories with a grain of salt, allegations of abuse should always be treated very seriously, says Mrs. Fox. Only a very small number of children who are abused disclose the abuse, and the number one reason they cite, as adults, for not having spoken up, is the fear of not being believed.

Seventy percent of children who disclose abuse report going unheard, and of those, 70 percent will not speak up again until well into adulthood, after years of therapy to undo the trauma.

Reams of research have shown that children, especially young children, are very unlikely to fabricate false allegations of abuse. Various reasons are offered: with little exposure, these are topics that they are unlikely to think up on their own; being a victim is stigmatized.

Often, perpetrators choose victims whom they suspect are vulnerable. These can include children from families that are dysfunctional, or kids who already have behavioral issues, so that others who hear of the allegations say, “Them? They can barely hold it together and they’re making accusations against others!” or “Him? Why would anyone believe anything he’d say?” Because it’s the least “believable” people who are disproportionately targeted, we need to listen carefully to each child or family and their allegations.

On the other hand, it’s true that on rare occasions children may lie about abuse. This is more common among children from unstable home situations, who may be tempted to use a serious accusation to get back at an adult in their life, such as a stepparent. False claims of abuse are also sometimes fabricated or suggested by a parent in custody or divorce proceedings. Parents aren’t equipped to determine the veracity of a child’s allegation. Though not foolproof, only an investigation by a trained professional can help detect false allegations.

If a child does disclose an episode of abuse, the key is to remain calm. No matter how outlandish the story might seem, don’t express doubt or question their story. Instead, says Mrs. Fox, simply mirror their words. “You say he touched you there?” “Yes, and I was so confused.” “Oh, you were really confused then.” This simple, trusting response will give the child permission to share more, without providing leading details or emotion that could cause him to shut down. It’s also wise to write down any details the child shares to refer to in the future.

Some things a parent should pay attention to while listening to her child’s story include:

The child’s general affect. Is he cheerful? Fearful? Is he having a hard time speaking about this? Does he avoid eye contact?

Does the story hang together, or do details keep changing? Does he up the ante significantly if he feels he’s not being taken seriously?

Does the child exhibit any behavioral or psychological indications of trauma?

Has the child ever falsely accused people in the past?

While these are helpful factors to note, it’s crucial that any claim be evaluated by a trained mental health professional. Only trained, licensed professionals, specializing in evaluating children, have the tools to determine the reality. Of course, true claims must be dealt with, but false claims are also extremely serious; a child who will make unsubstantiated claims of such a serious nature has emotional problems that also require help.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 811)

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