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Kids who lie: How schools are raising young people addicted to avoiding blame

Practice makes perfect, or so they tell us. And so, it astounds and troubles me to my core that we continue to raise kids in homes and schools where the art of lying is something that’s practiced so heavily that our children master it by the time that they reach adulthood.

As adults, we either make our dishonesty our one-wood and perhaps enter a political career – did I just say that? – or we look to outsource our mistruths to the telling of a professional articulator of our own carefully painted version of events when we find ourselves in a pickle. We call these people lawyers.

As they say also when two good people come together in court to sort a matter of conflict that could be done through a little bit of empathy, some civil discourse and perhaps a cup of tea – only the lawyers are the winners.

But perhaps you’ve found yourself describing your own child as a “bush lawyer” on occasion as you asked her/him to explain who drew with texta on the lounge room wall. 

Perhaps you’ve even been gobsmacked at the elaborate tale even the youngest child can pull together at a moment’s notice to absolve themselves of responsibility. My sister did it, an alien did it, my hand slipped, it was a ghost or perhaps the classic 'I don’t know. I was playing in my room.'

It just isn’t useful to deploy systems in our homes and schools whereby kids actively resist our attempts to help them solve problems.

And this is exactly what we compel them to do when we force them into mitigating the risk of a potential negative outcome upon themselves, such as a detention, a grounding, a stern lecture or a school suspension.

Learning to be better liars

Further, not only do we actively encourage lying in these circumstances, but we foster a sophistication in untruthfulness that is almost impossible to compete with.

When kids learn that their bare-faced lies are more palatable to the adult in the room they learn also to add some window dressing to the lies to improve their impact. By now, we’ve begun to encourage the very proficiency of denial, exaggeration, obfuscation, minimisation, lies by omission and distraction into drama that makes social problem solving close to impossible.

Our kids have immense creativity and raising them in systems where they get to apply it to skirt around responsibility isn’t something that most parents want to do. We just haven’t found a better way.

A teacher not a judge

But there is a better way. When our kids do the wrong thing, the feeling they get is shame. It’s not a nice feeling but, like all emotions, it has a purpose. Shame is the teacher. It teaches us when we’ve done the right thing and the wrong thing. It ignites our conscience and all parents want to raise kids with a conscience.

What we need to do is raise kids who see the sting of shame as a signal to act. We need them to have a moment where the self-talk is more akin to 'Oops. I’ve messed up. I’d better fix that' as opposed to 'Oops. I’ve messed up. How do I get out of this?'. This changes the role of parents and teachers fundamentally when wrongdoing occurs.

Instead of positioning yourself as a judge whose role it is to declare a penalty based on the brief of evidence available, choose to be a teacher of how to respond to screwing up. After all, our homes and schools are not judicial systems – they are systems of love and learning.

Get a gist of what’s happened, but instead of laboring the finer points of the story, move on the harm that’s been caused and how we’re going to work together to fix or repair that.

The harm might be a scribble on a wall or the disappointment of a parent, but even our toddlers can actively do something about that to make it at least partially better. They can act.

In that act, they take responsibility. It’s much better that they practice that than it is to fabricate alternate realities of the past. And after that fact, we can thank or congratulate them, which both flips a negative quickly into a positive and allows your child to walk away from the shame. And that’s a good thing. No kid needs to carry shame around with them. Let it do its job as a teacher and then let our kids experience the world armed with its powerful life lessons.

Adam Voigt is a former school principal and system leader who is now the founder & CEO of Real Schools. Adam is also the author of Restoring Teaching, a book aimed at restoring esteem for the role of educators through establishing strong, productive and restorative cultures around Australia’s schools.

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  1. Thank you for expressing something so rare as common sense.
    We need adults with resilience who are not constantly protected by their parents from the consequences of their actions.
    This is such an unpopular concept. Not PC at all.

  2. Completely agree with the purpose of shame and how to use it effectively to build responsibility but totally disagree that it’s schools who are raising young people addicted to avoiding blame. As a principal, last time I looked, I wasn’t the parent raising the students at my school.

  3. Quote from an 8 year old.
    “A mistake means that you can learn to do better or be better, if you have a helper, and then you feel good”
    Telling lies is a mistake that can be remedied.

  4. It is difficult to teach about taking responsibility for actions when our leaders and role-models promote the opposite!

  5. Taking responsibility for your actions starts in the home; to nurture kids to know that there are consequences for their action & peple can get hurt.

  6. practice=noun

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