Have you ever hosted a visiting child in your home who tells a tall tale that you suspect is not truthful? Something about how their friend lives in a castle with a moat and a drawbridge? These fantastical imaginings are not uncommon in childhood – especially early childhood – where children spend a lot of time in the world of make-believe. Research has found that children who participate in pretend play benefit in a variety of ways, including overcoming fears, developing empathy, and learning social skills. As educators, we encounter the world of make-believe many times a day and understand its place in the development of the very young.
But what about deliberate or manipulative “untruths” – aka lying? Most children lie sometimes. Although an occasional white lie is not a reason for serious concern, teachers (and parents!) should be concerned about a student who lies frequently. Students who lie can become skilled at the behavior; the lying then might become habitual to the point that they lie with little concern for the consequences, which can be considerable. Frequent lying can cause classmate distrust, and lead to peer rejection, which can give rise to additional behavioural or academic problems.
The nature of lying can range from telling a fib to avoid hurting another’s feelings to making up a story – implicating others – to avoid taking the consequences for one’s own actions. It is within this continuum that classroom teachers often find themselves having to practice the wisdom of Solomon. It is in these moments that prudent discernment is essential.
In my career working with students from 3 to 18 years of age – in day, boarding, elementary, and secondary schools – I have encountered a lot of “creativity” when it comes to the facts. Everything from an 11- year old who made up a story about a “sister” at home (…which, I came to learn at parent-teacher interviews, he did not have!) to fictional accounts of nonexistent pets and elaborate “never-happened” vacations. Similar untruths can also be found in convincing claims such of, “Yes, I already brushed my teeth” to “No, I did not have any homework”. It’s not hard to see that our children and students can play fast and loose with the facts at times, especially when their own self-interest is at stake.
From describing things that never happened to bending the truth to show themselves in a better light, kids learn to lie from a young age (…usually around 3 years). This is when children start to realise that we aren’t mind readers, so they can say things that aren’t true without us always knowing. As children grow older, they can lie more successfully without getting caught. The lies get more complicated because children have more words and are better at understanding how other people think. When it comes to life at home, playing both ends toward the middle (i.e., between mom and dad!) can also be a form of manipulation that never ends well.
In such moments we need to be realistic and prudent. Usually, if something sounds too good to be true (…or too farfetched to be wholly “innocent”), it often is.
There is an old adage in schools and it runs something like this: “If you promise not to believe 100% of what your child says happens in school, we promise not to believe 100% of what they say happens at home!”
If the versions of events you sometimes hear this year cast your child in a light that is as “pure as the driven snow” while simultaneously vilifying another, the truth will often be somewhere in the middle.
And that’s no lie! Truth is indivisible.
Ric Anderson, Head of School