In Why Kids Lie, Eckman talks about reducing the temptation to lie. Speaking of his son, who he caught in a big lie two years earlier, Eckman writes:
Whenever something has come up that [my son] might be tempted to lie about, I have been very careful about questioning him in a way that would encourage him to be truthful. Not “Who broke the vase?” or “Did you break the vase?” But “We shouldn’t have kept that vase in such a vulnerable spot; it would be too easy to knock over. Was it you or your sister?”
In other words, Eckman is recommending asking leading questions that put the wrongdoing in the most favorable light so that truthfulness isn’t so scary for the child. The child feels safer in telling the truth, with fewer worries about harsh punishment to come.
However, the most charitable explanation for behavior isn’t always the most accurate. The son might have broken the vase playing baseball inside or smashed the vase in a fit of anger. In such cases, the leading question encourages the child to confess to the wrongdoing — but only superficially. The child might honestly admit to causing the damage, but then lie (either by omission or commission) about the reasons for that damage. In essence, the leading question provides a ready-made false excuse.
So using this method of leading, charitable questions in an attempt to promote honesty and responsibility may instead promote habits of dishonesty and irresponsibility.
In contrast, Linda and Richard Eyre’s book Teaching Your Children Values contains some excellent suggestions for teaching honesty to children of all ages. Perhaps the most interesting is implicit in the opening story of the chapter on honesty.
Pulling into the driveway one way, I noticed a broken milk bottle on the pavement. I asked nine-year-old Josh and his friend, Chip, if they knew how it happened. Chip quickly said no. Josh looked over at him, somewhat startled, then walked over and put his hand on Chip’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, he’ll understand.” Then to me, “The basketball hit it, Dad. Sorry. We were going to clean it up, but we forgot. Come on, Chip, I’ll get the dustpan.”
Despite his father’s direct question, Josh isn’t afraid to answer honestly. But most importantly, he knows what to do to fix the situation: clean up the mess he made. Not all wrongdoings can be so easily fixed, but most can be fixed with a bit of thought and effort. By focusing the child’s attention on the constructive task of making amends rather than awaiting punishment, the admitting the truth becomes less scary.
In other words, children ought to be explicitly taught the skills of redemption as part of learning about the necessity of honesty. The former will make the latter easier.