Defend Truth


Home truths — the importance of teaching children moral principles

Home truths — the importance of teaching children moral principles
Photo: Pixabay; Graphics: Vecteezy; Freepik

Here are some of the reasons school-age children lie, and how to encourage them to tell the truth.

I have just started teaching Grade 7s and 8s again this year and have seen how many lies children tell.

Dr Ran Anbar wrote a fantastic article in Psychology Today titled “How Do Children Learn Morality?”, in which he laments how many adolescents he has encountered with a poor grasp of morality in his practice as a paediatrician and counsellor for children. He decided to look at the challenges we face in teaching moral principles in the 21st century.

Anbar classifies morality as “a belief that some behaviours are right and acceptable and others are wrong. A system of moral principles can be generally accepted by a society or by a particular group of people to help maintain an orderly society.”

He goes on to observe that for millennia morality has initially been taught to children in their homes and has frequently been based on religious principles or guidelines set by a country’s rulers. He adds that in some societies, formal education augments children’s moral knowledge.

It is generally agreed that parents and other caregivers are the first teachers of morality to children. Developmental theorists argue that throughout childhood children grow from selfish thinking to consideration of others’ feelings.

Anbar says that when teaching children to think about others this can lead to a better understanding of moral principles. To start with, children can learn from thinking about how their actions might affect others. And then children can be prompted to consider moral issues from the perspective of other people.

Theorists like Lawrence Kohlberg and others argue that morality can be taught in many ways, which include:

Discussion about stories to illustrate morals, including through consideration of movies, fiction, fables, Bible tales and myths. Children are sometimes encouraged to give their own solutions to moral dilemmas and then given feedback on their thoughts.

Children learn by copying moral behaviour as is modelled by adults in their homes.

Children should be given consistent, appropriate consequences for inappropriate behaviours, which can help them make better choices in the future.

One of the challenges Anbar identifies is that in 21st-century America, religion has become increasingly irrelevant to many and that government-based laws have often become disrespected for various reasons. He goes on to say that some believe that rules developed by religious or political leaders are biased in support of the leaders’ agenda rather than the well-being of individuals.

In America, Anbar observes that many have chosen to adhere to the morality embodied in the Declaration of Independence that placed individual rights at the centre of political life: “All men are created equal…” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This morality encourages individuals to choose to live as they wish, as long as they do not impact significantly on other people’s lives.

Anbar questions whether our cohesiveness as a society isn’t eroded in the absence of moral authority in addition to that conferred by our individualism.

So why exactly do children lie?

I was on a school camp last year when the camp leader came to me and asked if a girl, who he had sent to me, had come to see me. She hadn’t come and I didn’t know anything. So I called Rita and asked her why she told the camp leader she had spoken to me. She was speechless – she had been caught out!

As much as we might like to think that our children will always tell the truth, the reality is that lying is something most children experiment with at one point or another. Teachers, parents and guardians should keep in mind that telling lies is a natural part of child development and that in most instances children outgrow this behaviour.

Children learn to lie from about the age of two. The first lies children learn to tell are denials of doing something wrong. From the age of three, they also learn to tell “white lies”. These are lies that are told to benefit other people or to be polite.

For example, a child learns that you don’t tell granny about it when you’ve made a surprise birthday cake for her. And when your friend’s mother gives you a present you should thank her, even if the present is something you don’t like.

Telling lies well is a social skill which we teach children, and young children find lying convincingly difficult. They often fail at this when they are asked further questions.

A child as young as age three is perfectly capable of knowingly telling a lie to avoid getting into trouble or to get something he or she wants. Other common reasons for lying in school-age children include:

  • Wishful imaginative play;
  • To avoid something they don’t want to do (such as clean up toys);
  • To avoid punishment;
  • A desire to brag to friends/classmates to boost status and impress them;
  • A desire to not disappoint parents when expectations are too high;
  • Unhappiness with something in their lives; and
  • An attempt to get attention.

An article on the internet on “How to Handle Lying in Children” provided some helpful tips to keep in mind when dealing with lying:

Get to the root cause of the lie. Is your child simply telling a tall tale as part of fantasy play? Or is she deliberately trying to mislead you because she doesn’t want to be punished?

Give your child consequences, rather than punishment. What’s the difference? Punishment comes from a place of anger whereas consequences are focused on correcting the misbehaviour.

Do not make your child feel like he cannot come to you. If a child is worried that you will be angry, he may try to avoid telling you the truth at all costs. The important thing is to help your child feel secure, safe and supported so that he knows he can talk to you without losing your affection and love. Explain to your child that if he tells you the truth, you will not become angry and that the truth is more important to you than anything else.

Be clear about your expectations. Tell your child that lying is something that you do not want in your home. Let her know that telling the truth is just as important as other good behaviour that you expect from her.

Assess your own behaviour when it comes to telling the truth. Do you often resort to lying when you want to avoid a situation or to get something you want? For instance, if your child hears you telling a neighbour that you cannot feed her cat while she’s on a trip because you have a sick relative when the truth is that you secretly don’t like that cat, then your child will get the message that adults lie when it’s convenient for them.

In a world where truth is the first casualty of war, and where there are so many lies on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to know what is true.

Read more in Daily Maverick: See, judge and act — how to help children to think critically and act morally when exposed to violence

On 5 February 2003, Colin Powell, at the United Nations Security Council meeting, stated that there was evidence that then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had these mobile sites with the capability of launching missiles to distant targets. The George W Bush administration left Powell to convince the world that Hussein had dangerous capabilities, and he provided the argument to launch the war on Iraq.

The New York Times later reported: “Ultimately these so-called mobile sites turned out to be harmless trucks… an intelligence failure of the highest kind… In the end, it must be said that Powell displayed an incredible lack of military judgement or, worse, purposely played along with the war hawks to deceive the American people and the rest of the world.”

Psychologists tell us that lying is as much a developmental milestone as any other cognitive task. Brighter children have a better ability to tell lies! Once children are old enough to understand the difference between truth and lies, it’s good to encourage and support them to tell the truth. You can do this by emphasising the importance of honesty in your family and praising your child for being honest. DM

Dr Mark Potterton is the principal of Dominican Convent School and the coauthor of the book Fairness for All: Doing Discipline Differently.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page


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