Don’t lie to me, we admonish a child who was caught cheating in class but denies it. Or a child who fabricates a different excuse each day for why she didn’t do her homework. Don’t lie to me, we thunder at the child who kicked the boy in back of him when he thought we weren’t looking, and now stubbornly denies all the wrongdoing.
The don’t-lie-to-me mantra carries the weight not only of our teacher and parental authority, but also the message that the very notion of lying is outrageous and intolerable.
As indeed it should be. And yet, very young children tend to spin tall tales and distort reality with remarkable frequency. Their inventions are usually transparent; we can see right through them. But children do not remain naïve 5 and 6 year olds for very long. Already at 9 and 10 they will be far more sophisticated and their lies will be convincing.
Why does an older child lie? There are many reasons. The need to be on top academically and socially, to win praise and approval, to gain an advantage, to escape criticism or punishment, to save face, or simply for reasons of expedience. Because it’s less of a hassle than telling the truth.
If we do not counteract the urge to cheat and lie at the earliest stage, say educators, the comical inventions of the five year old will metamorph into something far more subtle and destructive in an older child.
“Binny, you can still make it to Mincha if you hurry,” we’ll tell our bar-mitzvah age bochur as the last rays of sunlight fade from the horizon. “Oh, I davened already at an earlier minyan,” he’ll reply smoothly.
But wasn’t he right here, working on the computer the entire afternoon?
“Leah, this is not the kind of material you should be reading,” we say, disturbed at the title and cover of the book our daughter is surreptitiously devouring.
“I wasn’t reading it. I found it on the bus. I was just looking inside it for a name or some kind of identification.”
A shadow of discomfort in her voice makes us look deep into her eyes as she tells us this. This kind of fudging doesn’t quite sound like her. When did she pick up that trait?
Discussing whether, and how, habits of cheating and lying can be reversed, educators note that some children have an innate advantage over others; they make poor liars. Exposure and punishment become powerful deterrent factors for these children. Other children respond to behavior-changing strategies that stress incentives and positive reinforcement for overcoming the temptation to lie.
Psychologists and educators agree on one point: the single most important criterion in raising truthful children is to expose them consistently to a home and school environment where integrity is not only preached but scrupulously practiced. Even when it involves sacrifice.
In truth, we all try hard to be absolutely honest. We even point out a mistake in our favor to the cashier checking out our groceries. And if we happen to scratch the car alongside ours while pulling out of a parking lot, most of us wouldn’t dream of just zooming off. We’d leave our telephone number, we’d take responsibility.
We teach our kids about honesty, too. They know how much we hate lying. Lying is not tolerated in our home.
Then why is it that when the person whose phone call we’ve been avoiding finally gets us on the phone, we say we never got the message, when in fact we did get it and the child who gave it to us three times is standing right there listening to us invent alibis?
Why is it that when a simcha a person planned on attending slips his mind, he fabricates stories about traffic jams and coming down with the flu and having unexpected company pop in, instead of simply offering an earnest apology.
If we pause to reflect, we see that even when excellent justification is present, the price paid for lying is a steep one; it is a price extracted from the trust and respect that comprise the foundation of any healthy relationship.
But the most serious damage is that inflicted on a child’s core values, because a child models what he or she observes. Even at a very young age children are storing up for future reference the unwitting lessons adults teach them simply by their own daily example.
When Teachers Become Cheaters
This truism has been vividly demonstrated in the nation’s public schools where cheating has been said to have reached epidemic proportions. In probing this state of affairs, educators are pointing to a bizarre phenomenon: the rising incidence of rampant cheating among the very people supposed to be role models-teachers and principals.
In school after school, it appears, teachers and administrators have succumbed to the tremendous pressure to improve testing scores. This surrender has taken the form of excessive prompting during testing, and “feeding” children the correct answers. In the wake of disclosures of how teachers have been manipulating scores, dismissals and resignations have taken place in many schools.
In New York City alone, reports the NY Times, more than four dozen teachers and administrators from 30 schools were accused of guiding their students to use dishonest means to score high marks on standardized city and state tests in 2000.
Although there are no firm statistics, school officials agree that the pressure on teachers and principals to produce high ranking scores on standardized tests, in order for the school to qualify for certain benefits and financial incentives, has become much worse in the past few years.
Often the discrepancy between the old and revised statewide curriculum standards is so great that students suffer from a wide instructional gap. Teachers, afraid they will be faulted for their class’s poor test scores, have succumbed to the temptation to doctor grades.
A “Twenty Four-Seven” Project
“The fallout on children of knowing, or even suspecting, teachers of falsifying marks have been devastating,” says education specialist Gary Niels in an essay Cheating or Competing? “Wherever teachers have crossed that line and children are aware of it, the whole notion of integrity as a fundamental value in their lives has collapsed.”
Psychologists note that honesty-training in the school and even more importantly in the home, must be a 24-7 project.
“The frequent ‘white lie,’ the little deceptions and blurring of the facts that make up the fabric of many day-to-day adult interactions,” taint the environment like weeds that choke off the food supply,” writes child psychologist Dr. Gail Timothy.
“So much of a child’s ability to practice honesty hinges on what he or she not only observes, but senses in the very atmosphere of the home.”
Every day we are faced with dilemmas that force us to chose between self-interest and integrity. It’s important to remember to say to ourselves and not just to children, “Don’t lie to me!”