If you punish children after admitting wrongdoing, you may be teaching them to lie
vi” and “Shaindy” walked into my office with slumped shoulders and heavy hearts. When I asked what I could help them with, Avi spoke first.
“All of our five children are well-behaved, doing well in school, and have plenty of friends,” he said almost defensively. “The reason we are here is that our nine-year-old son seems to be — I really hate to say it, but — he seems to be a chronic liar.”
Avi went on to give me detailed examples of his son’s falsehoods, even in situations where he and his wife had concrete evidence that their son was not telling the truth. In short, they were coming with two questions. Is this something they should be concerned about, or should they simply dismiss it as childhood immaturity? And, if not, what should they be doing about it?
Responding to their first question, I assured them that they definitely should be concerned about their son’s dishonesty. The Torah warns, “Mi’dvar sheker tirchak.” (Shemos 23:7) And the Seforno adds that this prohibition even includes anything that could lead to or cause dishonesty. I then shared with them a brief encounter I had had a few years ago with Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita.
“I was at a chasunah and noticed a golden opportunity,” I began. “Rav Shmuel was standing alone, with no one speaking with him. So I rushed over to him to take advantage of the moment. I greeted him and told him that I was scheduled to speak on parenting the following week. Then I asked if he recalled any episode from his childhood that I could share with my audience about the parenting of his illustrious father, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l.
“Rav Shmuel thought for a moment. Then he shook his head and replied that nothing really stood out in his memory. ‘He pretty much let us raise ourselves,’ he said.
“When I gently pressed him, however, he added, ‘One thing I do remember is that while he never seemed concerned about our behavior, he took our middos very seriously. And one thing he would never tolerate in any form was sheker.’ ”
I then went on to explain to Avi and Shaindy that, as Rav Yaakov taught by example, parents can and should convey their disappointment and disapproval in no uncertain terms whenever they learn that their child has been untruthful.
Before offering any additional recommendations, I first explored how Avi and Shaindy handled various situations at home, such as when their children admitted wrongdoing.
“Well,” Shaindy replied indignantly, “if children misbehave, they have to suffer the consequences. Otherwise, they’ll never learn to correct their misbehavior.”
“That’s true,” I concurred. “But if they are punished for misconduct after confessing, you may be unwittingly teaching them to lie next time they are questioned.”
Now some readers may be wondering, when can you punish a child for doing something wrong without having to worry that it will encourage him to lie?
In order to answer that question, we need to turn to the wisdom of the Torah as interpreted by Chazal. The Torah teaches that if a thief is caught, he is to be punished by paying a fine equal to the value of the stolen item, in addition to making restitution to the owner (Shemos 22:3). On this halachah, the Gemara elaborates that one who confesses to his crime before being found guilty by a beis din is freed from paying the fine (Bava Kamma 75a).
A thief committed the heinous aveirah of stealing. And yet he is excused from having to pay the fine and is only required to make restitution, because he came forward and admitted his wrongdoing. If, however, he was proven guilty before confessing, he is punished with the fine. The same guidelines can be used by parents.
More specifically, if parents observe their child misbehaving, they can certainly impose a suitable consequence. If, however, the child needs to be questioned and then admits his wrongdoing, then his parents should follow the ways of Rav Yaakov by teaching their child that the middah of emes trumps the misdeed.
Of course, the parents can express disappointment and displeasure at the misbehavior. And in most cases, that will serve as a sufficient deterrent. But they should follow the guidelines of Chazal by not imposing any punishment. Otherwise, they may be teaching their child to lie.
My meeting with Avi and Shaindy reminded me of an incident from my childhood when I was about five or six years old. And the only reason I recall it so clearly is that I have retold it so many times.
Around the corner from where we lived, there was a boy, “Levi,” who was a year older than me and a year younger than my older brother, Yosef. And since Levi had no brothers, his mother often brought him to our home to play.
One hot summer day, when Yosef and I were getting bored, our mother a”h offered to take us to a nearby creek to go fishing. And since she felt sorry for Levi, she invited him to join us. After a while at the creek, none of us were catching any fish. Looking back on it now, I suspect that there were not really any fish in that tiny stream. The three of us, however, assumed the reason we were unsuccessful was that we were not getting our makeshift lines far enough out into the water.
As we stretched out to lean over the creek, my mother was concerned that I might fall into the water. So she grabbed my belt from behind to secure me on solid ground. Yosef was older and bolder, enabling him to plant one foot on a rock in the water and thereby lean further over the creek. Levi was not as agile as Yosef and had no mother there to hold his belt. Consequently, when he tried to copy Yosef’s example, he eventually lost his balance and plopped into the shallow, waist-high water. Although he suffered no injuries and easily walked out of the creek, Levi was soaking wet from head to toe.
It was time to head home.
All the way back, Levi was bemoaning the fate he would meet when his parents saw him.
“When I get home, I’m going to get a good licking,” he fretfully repeated to us in no uncertain terms. And he was inconsolable.
My mother, Yosef, and I felt terrible for Levi. My mother even offered to go in with Levi to explain to his parents that it had been an accident.
Levi, however, declined emphatically. And he stoically replied that he was prepared to accept his punishment. As he walked up the path to his home, he hung his head low as if he were a condemned man approaching the gallows on the way to his own execution.
The next day, my mother met Levi’s mother at the grocery store and was burning with curiosity to learn what had transpired when Levi came home the day before. But she had too much sensitivity and tact to ask. Instead, she greeted Levi’s mother warmly and engaged in small talk, waiting for an opening. And she did not have to wait long.
“You know, that was so generous of you yesterday to invite Levi to join your boys fishing,” Levi’s mother gushed. “He was really getting bored before you called.”
“Oh, it was a pleasure,” my mother replied. “Levi is such a well-behaved boy. I was happy to have him with us.”
“And wasn’t that a brave thing Levi did yesterday?” Levi’s mother asked, rhetorically. “He told us all about it when he came home. And we were so proud of him when we heard what he did!”
“What exactly are you referring to?” my mother gently probed.
“Oh, Levi told us how Meir fell into the creek. And he had to jump in to save him from drowning.”
As I told Avi and Shaindy, if you punish children after admitting wrongdoing, you may be teaching them to lie.
Dr. Meir Wikler, a frequent contributor to this space, is an author, psychotherapist, and family counselor in full-time private practice, with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood. He is also a public speaker whose lectures and shiurim are carried on TorahAnytime.com.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 947.
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