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When Our Leaders Lie, Here’s How to Talk to Your Kids About Telling the Truth

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Not too long ago, we could have faith that our national leaders were — for the most part — telling us is the truth when they spoke. But now we’re living in a world where the president, his press secretary, and his Cabinet regularly tell lies with such frequency that journalists need to fact-check them in real time.

Whereas George Washington “couldn’t tell a lie,” Donald Trump and his administration lies, fabricates, exaggerates, or tells “alternative facts.” Most disturbing, there seemed to be little consequences for any of their lies.

Until — hopefully! — now.

If the Mueller investigation has shown us anything, it’s that lies do, indeed, have consequences. After more than two years of watching this presidency play out like a bad reality show, I finally feel the tide shifting. People are finally being held accountable for their words and actions and, as a parent, I’m thrilled. I want my kids (8 and 5) to know the meaning of accountability, integrity, and the importance of telling the truth. The fact that the highest echelons of power haven’t been living up to my personal expectations for my children is both sad and pathetic.

As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids right from wrong, and also to explain the weight of consequences. For example, I often remind them that if they’ve done something wrong — like, say, got slime all over our new sofa — if they tell me the truth they’ll get in significantly less trouble than if they lie to me.  Yes, I’ll still be upset. Yes, they may still lose their Legos for a few days. But the punishment will correlate to the crime, and if they confess, I’m more likely to reduce their punishment duration.

Of course, even knowing this, my kids — like all kids — still sometimes make poor choices and lie from time to time. It’s little stuff right now: “Yes, I brushed my teeth.” (Really? I didn’t hear any water running!) “No, I didn’t hit my sister.” (I saw you swat her in the rearview mirror!). As much as this bugs me, lying and stretching the truth is a normal part of childhood development. As parents, all we can do is work through it and hope they will outgrow it and become honest adults with a conscience.

Yet sometimes, even when we think we’ve done a good job, our children fail us. Exhibit A: the president’s personal lawyer and former RNC deputy finance chair, Michael Cohen.

Last week my heart broke knowing his Holocaust survivor father, sitting in a wheelchair in a courthouse in NYC, had to witness his son getting sentenced to three years in federal prison for a multitude of lies and criminal activity spanning a decade. The personal responsibility his father probably felt as a parent wasn’t lost on me. Here he was, a man who sustained horrors we can only imagine, now watching his son bleed from self-inflicted wounds. No parent wants to bear witness to that.

Of all the things Cohen said in his statement, what resonated with me was this:

“…I also stand before my children, for them to see their father taking responsibility for his mistakes, mistakes that have forced them to bear a shameful spotlight which they have done nothing to deserve, and this breaks my heart. For me, the greatest punishment has been seeing the unbearable pain that my actions and my associations have brought to my entire family. My mom, my dad, this isn’t what they deserve to see in their older age, especially when as a child they emphasized to all of us the difference between right and wrong. And I’m sorry. ”

Fundamental to Judaism is the notion that we should not lie or deceive others; that we should be honest and have integrity. A Jew himself, Cohen certainly wasn’t living out the values he was taught from his parents or his faith. But in the end, he did the right thing: He atoned for his sins and has publicly asked for forgiveness. He may have “slimed the sofa,” but he confessed he had lied to the FBI, and between his cooperation with authorities and finally telling the truth, his sentence — while still lengthy — was reduced.

I actually used Cohen as an example when discussing consequences with my kids, and it got me thinking about other lessons we’ve gleaned over the past two years that we can teach our kids:

Honesty is always the best policy. Kids inherently know right from wrong — especially when it comes to assessing another child’s behavior.  Just spend 10 minutes on an a school playground and you’ll see how quick they are tattle on a friend for doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Just as likely, they also know when they’ve done something wrong. When confronted, watch their eyes dart, their body language change, their face color. They know deep down that they were wrong, and they know being honest is part of being a good person.

When you lie to others, you’re really lying to yourself. At the end of the day, each person  has to look themselves in the mirror. When my kids do lie and get caught, I often ask how it made them feel. “Not good, Mommy.” They’re right. They may not understand what guilt means (Jewish or otherwise!), but they know that lying doesn’t feel good.

If you lie (or cheat or steal), you will inevitably get caught. Just look at how many people Mueller has nabbed already, and his investigation isn’t even done yet. You may think you can get away with it, but chances are, you’ll get caught eventually. So just don’t do it.

If you are caught in a lie but you tell the truth when prodded, your punishment will likely be reduced. Exhibit A, Michael Cohen.

We may be living in a world where people in power lie and there is no single source of truth, but as parents, we can use these opportunities to teach our kids by example. All you have to do is turn on the evening news; former Trump national security advisor and retired general Michael Flynn is being sentenced for lying to the FBI later today.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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