This week’s episode of “Perfectly Imperfect Parents” on The Chopra Well is all about lying and how parents handle it with their kids. Deepak Chopra makes a guest appearance to discuss the grey areas, but one voice remains adamant that lying is never okay: Dr. Cara Natterson is a pediatrician and author of The Care and Keeping of You. We interviewed her on her firm stance against lying and how parents can model the merits of honesty to their kids.
The Chopra Well: What’s your view on kids lying – sometimes okay, never okay?
Dr. Cara Natterson: The best advice I ever got, ever in my whole life I think, was this:
Never tell a lie and then you won’t have to remember what you said.
As a pediatrician and as a mom, my rule is that lying is never okay. This is a boundary – and an important one at that – because it keeps kids safe. I don’t really care what my kids might be lying about. For me, there are no gradations here. A lie is a lie, and teaching the importance of honesty trumps the subject matter. Now that said, all kids lie. At least, at some point they do. It is a developmental right of passage. And so it’s not so much that lying is entirely preventable (because it’s not), but rather that parents shouldn’t tolerate it. Your kids will do it, and they will seek your reaction. In my house, the response is pretty firm.
CW: Isn’t there kind of a fine line between kids embellishing/using their imagination and outright deceiving?
CN: Sure there is. This is part of that developmental phase. Kids must explore the concept of consequences. And they need to learn how to draw a line between reality and fantasy. I think it gets increasingly hard from generation to generation as there are more visual cues (TV, video games, movies, apps) that further blur those lines. But by the time a child is in grade school – certainly by 2nd or 3rd grade – embellishment turns to deceit. And I think many kids are asking to be caught because they want to know the limit. Their job is to push us and test us, and our job is to respond consistently.
CW: Can you tell us an anecdote about catching one of your kids in a lie and how you handled it?
CN: My daughter is a horrible liar. Gotta love that. She has no poker face and she bursts into tears when she thinks she has let someone down. So I would have to dig deep to find a story that involves her lying and not just melting and revealing herself within 30 seconds.
My son is craftier than his older sister. Not in a bad way, mind you, but he just watches and learns. So he does not fear stretching the truth like she does, and precisely because she doesn’t do it that much he doesn’t fear the consequences either (because she doesn’t really have any). His most frequent lie is about thumb sucking. I will be reading with him at night and see him slip his thumb into his mouth – a habit he’s been trying to kick since he was four, but at seven-and-a-half he just loves a drag or two on that thumb. I will see him do it, or a shiny, moist digit will pop into my peripheral vision while we are reading. And at this point, I don’t even say anything. I just grab at his thumb as fast as humanly possible because it’s a race to see if I can feel the moisture before he wipes his thumb dry on his pajama bottoms. When he wins the race, he smirks at me. When I win, I smirk back. And either way, his thumb gets covered with a Band Aid, which is the only deterrent that keeps it out of his mouth. There’s the consequence, and he just keeps checking that I am going to follow through. Every single night.
CW: How have truth and deception played into your work as a pediatrician? Do your patients ever lie to you about their health and habits?
CN: Parents lie much more than the kids do. Parents are invested in making life look perfect, or at least in putting their best face forward, so they will shower me with positives about how their kids are always in car seats or there is no soda in the house or whatever it is they think I want to hear. And most of the time, the kids will out their parents. “We do too have soda, mom!” When people lie about their health choices – like when a father tells me he has given up smoking and I can smell the cigarette fumes wafting from his clothes – they usually do it because they have shame. So it doesn’t help to further shame them. When I know someone is lying, I will ask the questions in a different way or try to explain why I am asking in the first place, and oftentimes I get the truth out.
CW: As parents, what’s the greatest lesson we can teach our kids about honesty, and how can we convince them that telling the truth is always worth it?
CN: It’s simple: honesty keeps you safe. And it really does. It keeps you from getting in trouble, it keeps you from getting hurt, and it keeps the story straight. I try to point to real-life examples of how lying creates bigger problems. We talk about events in the news related to lying or something that happened to a friend who lied at school. Recently my mom was driving one of my kids and she used the cell phone while driving. My daughter knew that I had asked her not to, and so when she did it my daughter said something. She said, “Nana, mom’s rule is no phone in the car. And there’s a reason for that rule – everyone drives better when they aren’t on it.” An amazing thing happened. My mom isn’t always perfect about following my rules, but she became perfect on this one. She hasn’t picked up the phone in the car since. I think it’s because my daughter told her why. She gave a rationale, and it made sense. It reminded me that explaining the reason for the rule is as important as the rule itself.
Subscribe to The Chopra Well and don’t miss next week’s episode of “Perfectly Imperfect Parents”!