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Helping children understand ‘white lies’

By Michelle Richards

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It’s not easy for children to tell the difference between a lie and a figure of speech or exaggeration, and many children will struggle with the concept of sarcasm for a long time. The idea that sometimes we say polite things even if we don’t mean them in order to protect someone else’s feelings can puzzle them immensely. Differentiating between “white lies” meant to make others feel good and lies meant to deceive or mislead others can be confusing to young, egocentric minds that are not yet able to understand another person’s perspective.

In our family, we use a system of “Truth, but maybe not full disclosure.” This means we should always speak the truth, but we are welcome to omit things that may hurt one another’s feelings. For instance, upon receiving a duplicate toy on their birthday, a child could easily say, “this is great!” while omitting the fact that he already received it from another cousin last year.

Unitarian Universalist parents could use the Principles as their guide for honesty and truthfulness. Do the words we say uphold a person’s inherent worth and dignity, or demean it? Are we working toward a world of justice, equity, and compassion when we speak? Are we engaging in a responsible search for truth and meaning when we tell lies about our behavior?

To do our part, we as parents also need to be careful not to set up our children to lie, be it either to avoid punishment or to help us avoid something unpleasant. It may seem easy to lie and say we can’t attend some function because our child is sick, but it is not so simple when the child is later asked by a friend about their supposed illness. Now we have placed them in the position of lying for us or betraying the lie we told. This is not a good place to be and certainly works against our attempts to uphold honesty as an important virtue.

One of the best ways to help our children “get it” is through the use of stories. Because the characters are animals or other children or people in another world, the lesson can slip past resistance and make its way into the hearts and minds of our children. All the earnest conversations and lectures about how telling lies only gets you into trouble can be tuned out, but an engaging version of the Aesop fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” can make a startling impact.

The next time your child catches you in a “little white lie,” he or she may very well remind you that if you tell lies, no one will trust you when it really counts!

Photo above © Alina Solovyova-Vincent / istockphoto.com

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