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Lies, laughs, and a spot on your tongue

May 10, 2012

My mother, upon hearing an outrageous lie from a small child, would say, “Let me see your tongue.” Small child would do so, and my mother would laugh and say, “I thought so! Whenever you tell me a big story, there’s a big, black spot on your tongue!” The child would run to the mirror and say, “No there isn’t!” And my mother would laugh again and say, “Well, that’s because when you’re telling a big story, you can’t see the spot on your tongue. Only I can see it.” Which, of course, was a more outrageous lie than the one told by the small child, and the small child knew it — but by now, both of them were laughing.

By the time she was doing this with grandchildren, my sister and I (know-it-all young mothers back then) would exchange looks of mock despair: “There she goes again with her spot story. How can you teach a child to tell the truth by telling him a lie?” What we didn’t see at the time was this: with just her intuition, our mom had interrupted the pattern of telling a lie, and given the child the experience of how it feels to be lied to — gently, with humor, and without accusing, lecturing, or making the child feel ashamed.

Parents have different ways of teaching honesty. But teaching with love and acceptance of a child’s developmental limits is likely to succeed. One of the best ways to cultivate truth-telling is to make it easy to be honest. Children who fear the consequences of telling a parent what really happened are more likely to invent an alternate scenario.

And what was it like when you were little? Was there a story you told and got away with? Did you get caught? What did you learn? Your child would love to hear about it.


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