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Here’s an important statement: Habits form character. A person who is known for being truthful is truthful habitually, not just once in a while. A person’s habits form his character.
I think we all want our children to be truthful, not just once in a while, not just sometimes, but having a habit of telling the truth. It’s distressing to feel that you cannot trust what your child says. But how do you help a child cultivate such an important habit?
We’ve talked about cultivating a couple of important habits already—the habit of attention and the habit of obedience. Today we want to zoom in on the habit of truthfulness. Would your home be any different if your children had just those three habits: attention, obedience, and truthfulness? For Charlotte Mason, they were the top three habits to work on. She wrote and talked about those three habits the most.
Her ideas on truthfulness are based on this concept: that words are powerful things, and we need to be careful how we wield them. So the place to start with cultivating a habit of truthfulness is to ask ourselves, “Do we love truth and hold it in high esteem, or do we view it as something that can be bent and manipulated to serve our own purposes? Are we careful to verify what we read in social media, or do we weigh its value by how exciting it is and then pass it on to others as fact? How careful are we with our own words?”
Then as we create that atmosphere of valuing truth in our homes, we can cultivate it in our children by requiring them, from the beginning, to give exact facts, without exaggerating or omitting. Here’s how Charlotte described that simple rule, which can blossom into great results:
The mother who trains her child to strict accuracy of statement about things small and great fortifies him against temptations to the grosser forms of lying; he will not readily colour a tale to his own advantage, suppress facts, equivocate [which means to use ambiguous language to try to conceal the truth], when the statement of the simple fact has become a blinding habit, and when he has not been allowed to form the contrary vicious habit of playing fast and loose with words.Home Education, p. 165
Words are powerful things, and we need to train our children to be careful how they use them. How do we do that? By requiring exact facts. Sounds simple, but let’s take a closer look at three things to consider as we are helping our children work on a habit of truthfulness.
So let’s say that you’ve chosen the habit of truthfulness as the habit to work on for the next six weeks. The next thing to do is to determine what you want that habit to look like for each child. What specific application do you want to focus on? As we discussed in the post on planning for habits, each habit Charlotte Mason mentioned is a broad category that can be applied in many different, practical ways in everyday life. Our goal is that our children will be able to apply it in all areas of life, eventually. But habit-training is a longterm project; it’s not a once-and-done kind of thing. And especially if we are starting when our children are little, as we should, we need to tailor our expectations to where a child is now and help him to take the next step.
As you think about helping your child cultivate the habit of truthfulness and how you want him to work on truthfulness during a six-week focus, keep these three words in mind: duration, delay, and discernment. Let’s walk through each one.
First, duration. This aspect has to do with how long of a truthful answer you are requiring of your child. When they are little bitty or if they struggle with truth-telling, this may be the place to start. Work on getting a truthful one- or two-word response about something that is obviously true or false, that can be verified easily by both you and your child. Start setting up that neuron path of “Tell the exact facts” with short and simple scenarios.
- Which toy did you put on your bed today?
- Is the bird feeder empty?
- Where is the dog?
- What do you see out the window?
In all of those scenarios, both you and your child can see the exact fact and whether he told the truth. If he didn’t tell the truth, have him look again and try again. Remember, our goal is to train him to love truth, so it can be helpful to keep these short practices encouraging and interesting, not threatening, just as you would with short lessons.
Once you have that neuron path set up and running, you can extend it to have your child work on retelling a whole conversation or event accurately. This is a bigger challenge because he has to remember and relate more facts correctly. But as we’ve discussed before, be careful that you’re not expecting a more advanced level of the habit than your child is ready for right now. He might launch into a retelling of his own accord, but don’t require one until he has gained confidence and consistency in telling shorter exact facts.
I wonder if this is another reason Charlotte didn’t require narration until the child was six years old. Narrations are retellings of exact facts; every narration you ask for is another opportunity to practice telling the truth. But we first need to get the habit of truth-telling set up with simpler, shorter situations when the child is young before we require that more advanced level.
So think about duration—the amount that you are asking the child to remember, recall, and communicate accurately—and consider whether your child needs to work on growth in that aspect of truthfulness.
Length of Delay
Another aspect he may need to work on is the length of delay that is involved. The duration is the length of the retelling; the delay is how much time passes before the retelling. We all know that it’s easy to forget details as time goes by. Yet if we love truth, we will be careful to communicate exact facts even when there is a time delay. Your child can start forming that habit by working on giving exact facts about something right away, as it happens or right after it happens, and then gradually progress to retelling something that happened days or weeks ago. For example,
- How many goslings do you see?
- What do you recall about Rembrandt [after reading part of his biography]?
- Tell Grandma what kind of bird we saw at the park yesterday.
- What did Mr. Rick say about his new car? (referring to a conversation that took place a few days ago)
You see how each of those exercises extends the time delay a little bit. As you set the specific habit that you want to work on with each child, consider both duration and delay. Now, if he happens to get into a situation that requires more duration or delay than he has practiced, you can help him value and love truth in that particular situation; but your everyday practice and conversations and focus are going to be directed to the level where you know he can be successful in truth-telling. Take the next step and then the next, always building on solid ground before moving on and raising your expectations. In other words, be cautious about requiring a child to recall and communicate accurately and carefully pages and pages of exact facts weeks after they happened if that child hasn’t had much practice with short and simple truth-telling in the moment. Do you see what I’m saying? We love truth, we expect exact facts, we gently correct when those facts are wrong; but we also do all we can to make truth-telling attractive and to set the child up for success each step of the way in our habit training, rather than throwing him into the deep end and punishing him for sinking under the weight of all he’s required to remember and tell with accuracy before he’s ready to do all of that. Does that make sense?
The third thing to consider when determining applications for this habit is discernment. Discernment is an advanced concept that you can help your child work on after he has made progress in duration and delay and has the habit of truthfulness already in place in many areas of life. Discernment has to do with making judgment calls, determining how to speak the truth in love, but not crossing the line into being scrupulous and correcting someone else’s words all the time. Those are advanced concepts that a young or inexperienced child may struggle with. Yet they are aspects of truthfulness that our children need to learn. So keep those discernment aspects in mind for your older child to practice during a focus on the habit of truthfulness.
Now, I want to address one more thing as we wrap up: What about a creative child who loves to use his imagination? I’ve talked with many parents who are concerned about preserving creativity in a child while also teaching him to love truth. Some parents make the decision to remove all make-believe and fantasy from the child’s life. Other parents decide to not require exact facts from that child; they make exceptions for him and subordinate the truth in favor of his fancies. But as usual, Charlotte Mason had a well-balanced approach to this question.
Charlotte said that removing all make-believe from a child’s life will starve his imagination, and she did not think that was the path to take. On the other hand, she said, parents must diligently cultivate a knowledge of the truth and a love for it. So how do we do that? A lot of it comes down to how you perceive your creative child and where the untruths come from: Are they deliberate falsehoods or are they due to something else? Here’s what Charlotte said:
I do believe that to starve her imagination would be to do real wrong to the child. But, at the same time, you must diligently cultivate the knowledge and the love of the truth. Now, the truth is no more than the fact as it is; and it is my belief that [the child’s] falsehoods come entirely from want of perception of the fact through pre-occupation of mind.Formation of Character, p. 87
Did you catch that? Charlotte thought that the reason a creative child misrepresents the facts is often because he is preoccupied; he’s thinking about other things, living in his imagination, and for that reason doesn’t perceive the facts that are in front of him. And how do you help him grow in noticing the facts in front of him? Practice. Just as with any other habit.
You can do a daily exercise in truth-telling with a child who needs more practice. Well, you can do several exercises each day, customizing the duration and delay aspects to set the child up for success and get that neuron path ingrained. But here is one exercise that Charlotte specifically suggested.
Get an accomplice in your house. It might be an older sibling or your spouse. Let him know what’s going on. Then once a day, call over the child who needs the practice in truth-telling, and give him a message to deliver to your accomplice. Remember, adjust the duration or length of the message to fit the child. After you’ve given him the message, hand him a piece of paper and a pencil.
The child should take the paper and pencil to your accomplice and hand them to that person. Then he should deliver the message while your accomplice writes down, word for word, what the child said. The accomplice can then hand the paper over to the child, who brings it back to you. Now you can see clearly whether he was truthful in that little exercise.
Those little practice exercises are what reinforce the correct neuron path and help your child develop a habit of truthfulness. And a habit of telling the truth results in a truthful character.