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Catholic Activity: Raising Truthful Children



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Mary Reed Newland gives timeless advice on how best to deal with untruthful children, and how to instill in them a love for the truth.


To deny that God is the remedy for a child's lying is to forget that Christ said: "I am the Truth." It is quite probable that there are more immediate reasons, but there is only one perfect cure, and that is love of Christ. Children are not born liars. They don't bother to lie when they are tiny because they haven't learned yet the pattern of crime and punishment. But after they have, they decide to try ducking the punishment by pretending they have committed no crime. On the surface, it is a perfectly logical thing to do. Any mother who has a child who has never told a lie must thank God for giving her child unusual graces. However, all is not lost if a child does lie. It only means that he is showing the effects of original sin. Our job is to give him a motive for not lying which will override the motives for lying.

Telling him it isn't nice won't do it. By the time he is in the first grade he will discover that it isn't always honesty that is rewarded, but carefulness. And the older he gets, the more he is able to look about the world and discover that the rules for success do not include a complete devotion to truth.

We can tell him that it is a sin, which he certainly must realize; indeed, for children who have made their First Communion, it is a matter for Confession. To hold that fear of sin is a bad thing for a child is nonsense. The fruits of sin are death to the soul, and it depends on how you look at the soul just where you intend to start setting up a few healthy frustrations. You can give way to the philosophy of complete freedom and permit your child to run wild in the name of the passive approach, and he may end up in eternity with a frustration for which there is no cure. Nevertheless, just chatting about sin won't accomplish much if he has nothing against which to measure sin.

The story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai is a dramatic framework in which to anchor the idea of sin, and reading children the 19th and 20th chapters of Exodus — in their own words — will help to make not only the Commandments but the catechism lessons on the Commandments far more vivid and dramatic than dry references to them as things to be learned and obeyed. Lying is a sin against the Eighth Commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

A picture of a soul in the state of grace helps too. It is told of St. Catherine of Siena that she fell to her knees before a vision of such light and beauty that she thought it was God. And when an angel said to her, "Arise, Catherine, for it is God alone thou shalt adore," she asked what it was she saw. The angel replied that it was only the sight of a soul in the state of grace. If we have taught our children that the Holy Trinity resides in their souls as long as they commit no serious sin, we must make it clear that venial sin does destroy some of the splendor, and though the Trinity remains, out of merciful pity for our weakness, God is not so sublimely happy as before. It is my experience that, of all the things one says to a child who is tempted to lie, "Please, dear, don't do anything that will destroy the beauty of your soul," as most telling effect. That is, if he understands something of the beauty of the soul.

The positive reasons for being good are, however, far more rewarding than the negative, and the positive reason for not lying is Jesus' statement, "I am the Truth." When He stood before Pilate, He said: "Every one that is of truth heareth My voice." The small voice of conscience that warns us to tell the truth in times of temptation is like the voice of Our Lord in us, begging us to be one with Him.

"You must try to remember, dear, when you are tempted to lie, that Jesus is present waiting to see if you will be with Him or against Him. He not only said He is the truth, but He also said the devil is the father of lies. So there is a great choice to be made. A lie doesn't just pop into your head. The devil whispers it there. He hates Our Lord and wants you to hate Him, too. When you think it would be better to lie than receive the blame for something wrong you have done, try to stop first, and think how much you love Our Lord. If you are afraid to tell the truth, then inside yourself tell Him you are afraid. Ask Him, quickly: 'Please help me to tell the truth.' He will send you the grace in the wink of an eye if only you will ask, and your soul will be stronger for telling the truth because you will have done a very brave thing."

Does it work? I wish I could say, Yes, they'll never tell a lie again. But it's such a big idea, and children do not retain a lesson word for word after being told just once. The emotional urgency is very strong when it comes to telling a lie. It isn't the same mood at all as night prayers, when a child is fairly recollected and thinking of God. It usually follows some calamity, and with his heart pounding in his breast the temptation comes and almost overpowers him. He is frightened or he wouldn't toy with the idea in the first place. And we must try to remember this.

It is best never to ask a child (if we can keep our heads), "Did you do it?" especially if we know that the temptation to lie is especially strong in this child. Given only a matter of seconds to reply, he is quite likely to seek frantic cover in a lie. Demanding such a quick answer is unfair. And while it is not good to hint we will distrust his answer even before he gives it, for children who find telling the truth difficult there is a measure of security to be told: "Now before I ask you, I want you to know I understand how hard it is sometimes to tell the truth. If you did this thing which you know was naughty, there must be some kind of right punishment for it. But to add a lie would only make it twice as bad. Stop and ask God to help you tell the truth, and then if you must have a punishment it can be your penance, your way of telling Him you are sorry."

I know one little boy who had great difficulty with lies. He learned to calm down and get over his first panic when he was given five minutes to go alone to his room and kneel down and say a Hail Mary to ask for the grace to tell the truth. This is not just a mechanical trick to free a child of his tension. Hail Marys are effective — and why shouldn't they be? Mary is the Mediatrix of all grace; if human mothers are concerned about teaching their children truthfulness, how much more so the Mother of God?

So often, however, the situation that precipitates a lie has everyone off-balance, mother as well as child; and only because I have made the mistake myself do I presume to warn other mothers against the "I want the truth" approach. God wants the truth, whether from a small child or a grown man; to allow it to rest simply on a mother's demand for the truth leaves the field wide open for lying under other circumstances. We are raising children who will soon be men and women, who will have to contain within them the soundest reasons of all for telling the truth no matter what the personal cost. It is obvious from the daily news reports that even personal honor has no meaning to many people any more, that perjury is as easy as breathing, and if no one finds out — what does it matter? But even personal honor is not a good enough reason. Pride in one's truthfulness is as risky for the soul as cleverness at lying, and it is a form of self-love with which the devil can eventually have a field day. If we can teach our children to tell the truth for the love of God, we can know for certain that each temptation resisted binds them closer to Christ and that through Him they will gradually develop a hunger for the truth.

Relating punishment to penance helps to lift it out of the category of "getting it" because Mother is mad. It helps a mother or father, too, to remember the reason for punishment for anyone, for anything. Fundamentally it is because we have offended God. If we start punishing children or men or societies because we're mad, we'll end up annihilating them. Unless we really want our children to conclude that we are mean little dictators, we must learn to instruct and chastise them from God's point of view. I must confess this is very hard, not so much the instruction as the chastising — and if suffering all the remorse that follows the too harsh punishment of a child has any value for parents, it is seeing all over again their own weakness and how — if they are to teach effectively at all — they must learn detachment well enough to be able to separate their own irritations and anger from the cause, and not use punishments as a personal sop for their disappointment with their children.

Of course, when you know that a child has done something wrong, it is being coy to ask him if he did. It is better to let him see that you know. Asking is only throwing temptation in his way. As for children who spin tales, all mothers recognize these tales when they hear them; and when children are very little, they love to have us pretend to believe them.

Like Stephen's mythical "friends." His friends do all the horrid things he is not supposed to do. He feels very virtuous to be able to regale us with hair-raising accounts of how some of his friends eat, talk back to their mothers, stamp their feet, and throw stones through windows. I am sure it is very healthy for Stephen to have such horrible friends and to feel so superior to them. At least it makes eating nicely much more rewarding when he is able to drain off his secret desire to get in there with both hands by clucking over his friends. But then Stephen is only three and some months, and no one, not even he, is really fooled.

Another lad who is older can spin a yarn that is really out of this world. He once had a teacher who rubbed him the wrong way and he came home with wild tales about things she said to him. None of it belonged in the class of serious lies. It was his own private way of getting sympathy and "getting even." And he nearly got me into difficulty one time by reporting that she had publicly criticized him for not having his hair shampooed often enough (could be). I was all set to hike down and give her a small piece of my mind on the subject of humiliating children in front of the class.

But God is good. Before my temperature rose too high, He sent a small grace which suggested I take a chance on guessing that it was an invention. I said: "You really made that up, didn't you?" He looked a little sheepish, and then said Yes. We had a long talk about making up stories and how sometimes it seems like a good thing to do, and how it isn't really a bad thing to do unless, of course, you make up something like this, which puts someone else in a very bad light. Then it could be terrible. Now that he was older, he ought to try to remember that it is best to identify the stories as "stories" and be more careful not to give everyone the impression that he doesn't care about the truth. When we finally got down to business and shampooed his hair, I decided Teacher would have been well justified if she had made some remarks about it. It was June and he was pretty grimy and maybe the whole thing started in the first place because, poor darling, he was longing for a shampoo.

Anyway, if you persevere, the teaching about lying works eventually. With some children it works right away, but the fact that a child does have difficulty with lying is no reason to abandon hope. One who will not lie may find that some other virtue is hard. Our job is to explain it patiently and often, theirs is to ask for the grace, and God will do most of the work.

Monica was telling me about a wrangle at school which involved lying. A Catholic child and a Protestant child were having an argument over religion. The Catholic child said that Catholics do not lie. The Protestant child said they do, only Protestants do not lie.

"What did you say?"

"Oh, I said both Catholics and Protestants will lie if only they will listen to the devil telling them to lie."

So that is that.

Now all this will be so much noise if we are not examples of impeccable truthfulness ourselves. Children are not easy to fool, and if we are given to elaborate promises which we do not qualify (If it is possible, I will . . . I will try very hard to . . . We will see, dear, maybe we can . . . and so forth) and do not keep, they will do exactly as they see us do and we can take all the credit for it. This involves all kinds of things, such as what to tell them about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, where babies come from, all the rest. And whether they like to admit it or not, the elaborate fictions parents invent about these things amount, in the end, to nothing more nor less than lies.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961