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How to Talk to Kids About Lying When Liars Are in Power

President Donald Trump plays fast and loose with the truth. There's a lesson in that.

Politicians lie. They always have and they probably always will. Candidates aim to please more people than their policies ever will, so they tell a few half-truths to get more votes. This has been the norm since the early days of the republic, but the lies don’t feel normal anymore. They have become brazen, callous, and obvious. They have, with a strong push from President Trump, become impossible to ignore and incredibly hard to explain to even politically minded children. They now exist at the center of our public discourse, making it both difficult to discuss politics and — perhaps more importantly — difficult to convince young citizens that lying is a bad idea.

This is not to say parents should vilify the president for his lies. That doesn’t help. The reality is that everyone lies and, within the current political climate, it’s increasingly important that American parents acknowledge that fact to their lying children.

Lying comes naturally to kids, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. More than two decades’ worth of research from psychologist Kang Lee has identified deception and lying in children as a behavioral strength. According to Lee, children who lie have better “executive functioning skills,” control over impulses, ability to focus, increased perspective, cognitive development, and are more socially adept and well adjusted. In other words, it’s good for kids to understand how to lie. The moral question is about when they should lie.

“Adults lie all the time,” says Shanna Donhauser, LICSW child and family therapist at the Happy Nest in Seattle. “Often the lies are benign — like lies to protect people’s feelings, to buy ourselves more time if we’re running late, and to protect ourselves from judgment or criticism. Children are very perceptive and pick up on these ‘white’ lies. They learn what is a reasonable and socially acceptable — even expected — reason to lie. They’re learning how to use it as a skill.”

It’s natural for children to see and understand the benefits of occasionally bending the truth. It’s also fine. Problems arise when children see examples of powerful people and authority figures telling damaging lies to get ahead. They go from practicing victimless crimes to thinking about falsehood as the shortest distance to advantage, which it sometimes is and often isn’t.

“It’s important at an early age to talk about what lies are acceptable and which ones aren’t so they can understand the risk factor of lies that cause deeper problems later,” says Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt, professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Youngstown State University, says. “What Lee’s study suggests is that kids can determine those risks at an earlier age than what we thought. They can determine what lies give them an advantage and what lies don’t.”

Which is why parents of fairly young kids can make use of the White House as an object lesson in lying. First of all, parents should not focus on the sheer number of lies. While the volume of Trump’s lies are remarkable — one study counted 1,628 false or misleading claims or flip-flops, about six per day in the first 298 days in office — the president remains in power, undeterred, and undiminished.

A clearer lesson comes from specific lies, like those of Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor who misled officials — notably Vice President Mike Pence — about his contact with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak. He was fired not for breaking any laws (plenty of others talked to the Russian diplomat), but for simply being caught in a lie. Why did that matter enough for him to lose his job? Because no one could trust him anymore. This is a value that all Americans — even those that bend it — can understand.

And this is a lesson that you can bring home. “Parents should describe what trust means to them,” Donhauser says. “Talk about how lying makes trust difficult because then you don’t know when they are telling the truth, and when they are telling a lie.” This goes beyond just telling the truth — playing games fairly is about trust, as is admitting mistakes. And, like so many lessons, trust is something that is easier for parents to show than explain. “Model for your children and narrate what you are doing so they can learn.”

In a time of lies, even a small bit of truth-telling can go a long way.