Why Honesty Is The Best Policy For Your Kids And Relationship
When people think of honesty and parenting, they usually think about how to teach their children to be honest. Oh, sure, we tell our kids all the time that honesty is the best policy. But, are we really showing our kids through our own actions that honesty is the best policy?
I think we can all agree that the point of parenting is to pass on values and principles to our children so that they grow up to make a positive contribution to our society.
But, are we passing onto our kids the value of being honest when our actions towards our spouse may reveal otherwise?
This blog post isn’t directly about teaching kids to be honest – rather, it’s about the importance of honesty in our relationship with our partner, and the impact that this value has on our children (and then, indirectly, on their learning how to be honest).
This post is about demonstrating to our children that honesty is the best policy – through our actions not just our words.
Honesty is Best Learned by Example
Honesty is a virtue that is best learned by example.
It certainly is a whole lot easier to demonstrate honesty than explain it, especially to young children.
And we have a perfect opportunity to model this value in the most important relationship our children get to witness: the one with our spouse or partner (or co-parent, if you’re in a single-parent situation, or grandparent or other caregiver, if there isn’t a co-parent or partner in your life right now).
Shouldn’t we, as parents, demonstrate and live by the value that honesty is the best policy in our home and our relationships?
I’m sure most of you are nodding your heads and agreeing with me so far.
However, putting this kind of honesty with our partner or spouse into action daily can be much harder than it looks.
Let me tell you a story about a common occurrence in my home to illustrate what I mean.
Hard Time Saying No
I consider myself to be a good dad, and an involved dad.
Most days, I’m working from home (as an online couple therapist) and thus it can be difficult to keep my children amused between counselling sessions.
As such, I am known to turn on the television. Not the majority of the time.
But, certainly often enough.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal in that? A little TV isn’t great, but what is the huge harm?”
You’re correct that it’s not a huge deal, but my wife and I are trying to limit screen time so that the number of hours they get per week equals their age.
So, for our five-year-old, that means no more than five hours a week of screen time in total.
And our almost two-year-old? One to two hours a week, maximum (really, we’d prefer no screen time under two, but with an older sibling, that’s hard to enforce).
The issue is that, if there is one parent who is likely to go over the allotted time, it is me.
Not my wife.
She generally has more will-power to resist the appeals for a little “Princess Sofia” on Netflix.
Now, I bet my next sentence won’t surprise many people: most of my daughter’s requests for TV happen because Mom isn’t home.
My daughter is intelligent and knows that Dad is more likely to give in and say yes!
Yes, it’s my weakness. I make my apologies, but when I’m busy trying to work from home, I do lose my will to say no.
And, it certainly doesn’t help that my two little blonde angels largely have Dad wrapped around their little fingers (I know, I need to work on that, too!)
So, here is the important part: as much as I’d love to turn the TV on and keep it a secret from Mom so I don’t have to face the music when she gets home, there is a twofold problem with doing so.
Problem #1: Harmful Family Alliances
Problem number one is that, if I don’t tell my wife, I am building a harmful family alliance with my daughter that is secretive and deceitful.
My daughter knows that Mom would say no to TV – that is why she asks me.
My wife knows that I’m prone to turning on the TV, despite the research supporting our decision to limit screen time.
And I certainly know that I shouldn’t, as my wife and I have discussed and agreed upon the “hours per years” guidelines for our household.
In later posts, I will talk more about the dangers of building alliances with our children that don’t include our partners or the other parent.
But, to explain it briefly now, families exist as systems – we call it the family system.
Triangulation and Family Dysfunction
When a family system operates in a dysfunctional manner that aligns one parent with a child against another parent, this is called triangulation.
Triangulation disrupts the family system and endangers children’s emotional and developmental well-being because they are forced to take on adult-like roles such as hiding, lying or being deceitful to another.
Really, adults shouldn’t take on those roles either.
But it is particularly important in a child’s emotional and social development: children are too young to be asked to hide things from other people, especially their parents (and this goes for any secrets – grandparents saying “this will just be our little secret!” etc. etc. It can also be dangerous for kids – see my note below about sexual abuse risk factors).
For that reason, parents should not ask their children to hide things from the child’s other parent.
And I should be clear here: when I say “parent”, I mean that to include any adult that is involved in regular, primary caregiving for the child – it could be a step parent, unmarried partner, or even a grandparent, if they are included in the immediate family system.
Although small, a micro-lie can play an important role in triangulating a child, leading to poor familial boundaries that are characterized by dysfunctional family interactions.
No matter what kind of heck you’ll get from your partner, don’t ask your child to hide things from their other parent.
In short, you’re far better off making honesty the best policy.
Problem #2: Little White Lies have Big Consequences
The second problem with asking your child to be deceitful towards their other parent is that it teaches dishonesty.
We know that, as adults, telling little white lies on a day to day basis can play a socially important role.
How many of us have replied “I’m fine!” when really we aren’t?
Or lied to protect someone’s feelings and told them that their new haircut looked great?
We’ve all told little lies here and there.
However, children haven’t developed the critical thinking skills (or “theory of mind”) to differentiate between a socially-acceptable little white lie and a larger, harmful lie.
So, when we teach our children to lie to their parents – no matter how small the lie – our child hears that it is okay to be untruthful.
They come to learn that “little white lies” are benign or “prosocial”.
Theory of Mind
While we may hope that our children understand the consequences of telling lies, this unfortunately isn’t true in young children.
Children start to develop their theory of mind by ages 6 to 8.
This means that, by age 8, some children will still have not fully developed the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Most children will also not be able to fully understand how another’s mental state differs from their own.
By that calculation, my five-year-old would not have been able to comprehend fully the impact of our shared white lie on Mom.
All she would have retained is the key message that little white lies are okay and that “don’t tell Mom” or “don’t tell Dad” are acceptable approaches to communication – which is definitely not true.
I have to imagine that, when it comes to co-parenting, the “don’t tell Mom or Dad” is not the kind of communication you hope to teach your children, let alone engage in with your partner and children.
Importance of Not Keeping Secrets
Side note, but an important one: teaching your kids to keep secrets also puts them at increased risk for sexual abuse.
If a kid is taught that it’s okay for an adult to tell them “sshhhh! This is a secret just between you and me, don’t tell your Mom!”, they don’t know how to differentiate between a parent telling them that, and someone else telling them that who means to do them harm.
There should never be secrets in a family. Surprises? Sure! Let’s make a cake and surprise Mom for her birthday!
But a secret? That’s very different.
There is great literature out there on the difference and how to teach kids about it. I’ll get into that another day.
Making the Unpopular Choice
Regressing like I do and turning to the TV to do my parenting job that I’m choosing to neglect in the moment is not a wildly popular choice in my household.
But truthfulness towards my spouse is.
No matter what kind of flack I’ll catch from my wife for turning to the black rectangle for child-minding support, I am always the first to tell my wife that “we watched TV today”.
The consequences of lying to my wife may be small to me, but to my daughter, they will grow with time.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom,” said Thomas Jefferson.
It’s up to us parents to help our child write their own book of wisdom – and upon which values, principles and beliefs do you hope they base that book?
I bet honesty ranks high on your list.
Therefore, honesty is the best policy and as parents, we should make it so.
Now, I haven’t talked much about how it impacts your spouse or partner when you ask your child to lie for you, to them.
But imagine how that would feel, if you discovered that your spouse and child had been lying to you, maybe repeatedly, about what was going on at home?
Not so good, right?
That tells you that it’s not okay to lie to your spouse – no matter how little.
While you risk temporarily upsetting your relationship with your partner by being honest about your transgression, you risk damaging your child’s long-term developmental well-being by not.
I bet you anything you’ll choose to take your lumps instead of offering up your child to take them for you.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online therapist and relationship coach helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.