And then there are the lies that children tell. A strange thing about censuring someone for lying—even a child—is that the accusation burns so much. Paradoxically, it’s often a more calamitous thing to call a lie a “lie” than to tell a lie. Yet we do have to encourage truthtelling and teach kids to avoid lying.
One way to frame the message is to say this: lying should be avoided unless necessary for something important that can’t be achieved in any other way. Lying is a tool not to be thrown out altogether, but to be used sparingly and uncomfortably (since the discomfort is part of what makes us lie only as a last resort).
But the message will need to be even more nuanced. When a child lies to his parents, that undermines future communication, and we need to be able to trust our children when they tell us what went on or what their plans are. It’s another matter when kids lie to their friends—perhaps telling an expedient or protective lie about why getting together this weekend will not work, rather than telling the truth. There’s much more at stake in preserving a trusting relationship with your parents than with friends who come and go, let alone strangers in a bureaucratic setting.
Is this the right way to impart moral lessons to children—by presenting a complicated story about when, why, and to whom a seemingly bad action may be performed? Perhaps we actually have a better alternative. My children’s elementary school used a "life skills” curriculum with a lot of appeal. Every week there was another life skill—another virtue—to learn about and practice. One week it was integrity, which the kids learned to define (tricky one!). Another week it was courage. In addition to discussing the virtues, kids were given awards for displaying them.
One of the life skills was truthfulness. Children should aspire to it, as should we all. Setting up truthfulness as a basic virtue (with no qualifications) imparts the main thing kids need to know. It’s always bad to some degree to deviate from truthfulness—it feels bad, tastes bad, looks bad. We feel ashamed when we’re caught lying, even if we had a good reason to lie. Once a child has acquired that life skill— and it may take years to acquire it—then we can start talking about special circumstances and exceptions.
Parents are just very grown-up kids, and hopefully retain the virtue of truthfulness they learned early on in their own lives. But then, parenthood is one of those special circumstances that require extra reflection. Interacting with a child gives a parent special reasons to bend or alter the truth—to make the world more magical for children (Santa Claus), or more safe (bad-dream spray), or more comfortable (what happens when we die?), or more fair (writing false school excuses). Once kids are old enough to see us as truthful or not, it all gets trickier, because they may take us as a model. They need to see us esteeming truthfulness as an important value, even when we do reluctantly give something else higher priority.