How to Raise Kids Who Tell the Truth

If you believe researcher Victoria Talwar, strict parenting styles have the unintended consequence of producing children who have learned how to be effective liars. According to the latest research from Talwar, which has been accepted for publication in the prestigious International Journal of Behavioral Development, children from strict backgrounds are more adept and quicker at lying because they fear punishment. What’s more, according to Talwar, lying isn’t always a bad thing; in fact, it may very well indicate superior intelligence and potential success. I agree with less than half of Victoria Talwar’s findings.

I concur with the study’s conclusion that strict parenting styles help unleash dishonesty in children. Where Victoria Talwar and I part ways, however, is the belief that lying isn’t always a bad thing and, more pertinent for this article, that strict parenting causes lying.

My parents were very strict, and they expected obedience immediately. Disobedience, of course, brought quick retribution. I learned to be a good liar in order to do what I wanted without suffering the penalty (which, incidentally, may have been my first acting lessons). A case study of my childhood would’ve supported Talwar’s research findings. But one person’s experience does not a peer-reviewed journal make.

Case studies and peer reviewed journals aside, as a conservative Christian, I know that the heart is deceitful and wicked. All humans are born sinners; all humans are born liars. On one level, Talwar’s study simply demonstrates a biblical anthropology. On another level, however, Talwar’s study denies the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 15:18 that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” So, yes, children are liars, all children; but children with strict parents have more reasons to lie than do their peers with parents who have more libertine parenting styles.

But what does all of that mean for parents? Should parents alter their parenting styles based on Talwar’s research?

I’m sure that many parents can learn from Talwar and other social-cognitive development researchers, but learning from and using as a parenting template are two different things. Parents should be wary about putting too much stock in the role their parenting has on their children’s morality. Likewise, parents should be wary about assuming that current social-science trends present the end-all for parenting.

Of course, most parents want their children to be honest as well as successful. When presented with a study that suggests that kids who learn to be efficient liars also tend to be intellectually rich with a greater chance for success than their peers, parents may be left with a dilemma – discarding morality for the sake of potential success. You see, regardless of what social-scientists say, many parents understand that lying is almost never a good thing; the ends do not justify the means. Of course, that’s aside from the fact that even if overtly dishonest children tend to have greater imaginations and be more successful, how society defines success may need to be questioned instead of automatically venerating lying.

On the flip side, parents who tend towards strictness in their parenting style may be left wondering if they’re responsible for their children’s deceitfulness. Well, they’re not. Humans are liars; if parents are making rules because they believe it’s in the best interest of the child, the child’s deceitfulness is ultimately the responsibility of the child. For example, as a child, I knew that I was wrong for lying to my parents. I knew that my desire to break their rules and escape punishment did not justify my deceit. But because I was a sinner, I simply didn’t care.

Ultimately, if parents want honest children, the best parenting style is one that has as its main priority pointing their kids to God the Father. Of course, keeping children safe and helping them learn to be productive members of society are important goals for parents, but teaching them about God through parenting should outweigh any and all temporal concerns.

To that end, when making parenting decisions and implementing rules and procedures for the family, parents should ask, “What does this communicate about God to my children?” In other words, are rules in place to make the parents’ life easier? Or, are the rules designed to communicate something about the nature of God?

No parenting style is going to produce honest children; that’s the sole purview of the Holy Spirit. Teaching your children about God, including in and through your parenting style, while praying that the Holy Spirit will use those gospel seeds to bring about faith in your children is the only way to produce heartfelt honesty. That reality should free parents from feeling compelled to using theories of behaviorism in an attempt to morally mold their children.