Honesty and Yoga: Principles for Children and Teens

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Lying is a difficult subject to broach with kids. 

As parents, catching our kids in a lie can upset and disappoint us, especially if it's a pattern.  We may wonder, "What have I done wrong to make my child think that lying is ok?"  And yet, if we consider our own behavior, we may realize that we don't always model truthfulness ourselves. 

As adults, we can be dishonest with our kids in both subtle and overt ways.  Have you ever been upset about something - angry or crying - and heard your child ask, "What's the matter," only to reply with that pat mommy response, "Nothing honey, I'm fine"?  Think about the mixed message that sends.  Even a toddler can tell that mommy isn't fine. 

I remember an incident in a public restroom with my then three-year-old son.  As I looked up from the sink to see him eying the trash can with that curious gleam that only toddlers get, I heard myself saying (the voice of desperation - he was getting ready to touch a restroom trashcan, for goodness sake!), "Don't touch that, or you'll get sick!"  "Will it make me throw up?" he asked.  Determined to persuade him to walk away from the trash can, I replied, "Yes."  At which point he reached out and touched it anyway.  The fact that he came down with the stomach flu that night was an ironic coincidence, and I never did have to warn him away from public restroom trashcans afterward.  And although it makes a great story (in part, because I didn't get caught in my little lie), I certainly wasn't truthful.  Can public trashcans make you sick?  Perhaps.  But there were ways I could have stated my case more honestly.

We call these white lies, and justify them by saying they're necessary to protect, or to prove an important point.  The fact is, our children learn from us.  They are our greatest observers.  So when we tell these white lies, our kids usually know it.  What we teach them is this:  telling the truth is important, except when lying serves you better.  So when your eight year old denies spilling a glass of milk in the living room in order to avoid punishment, ask yourself how often you've fudged the truth to manipulate a situation. 

As they get older, children become more and more sensitive to our dishonesty, especially in the form of hypocrisy.  If you advise your teen-aged daughter to save her money, advocating the virtues of putting money aside rather than spending it on trinkets or clothes - then head out to the mall to buy yourself a new outfit on a whim - it sends a clear message that the playing field is not even.  There are the rules you expect your child to live by, and then there are your rules.  If there's an inequality, your child will notice.  And they will not respect you for it.

Dishonesty can be expressed as speaking an untruth, hypocritical behavior (saying one thing and doing another), failure to keep a promise, or violating a trust.  As a parent it's important to be mindful of our behavior in all of these respects in order to model honesty.  Is it easy?  Absolutely not.  Then again, I haven't found much about parenting to be easy.  But I do believe it's necessary to try.

Truthfulness or satya (Sanskrit for "non-lying"),  is one of the foundational principles of Yoga.  While, from a parenting perspective, we tend to teach truthfulness as a way of relating to others, in Yoga we consider truthfulness in terms of how it reflects on ourselves.  Does lying hurt people?  It can.  But it always hurts our selves - we who hold forever that experience of being dishonest.  Each dishonesty sows a seed inside of us, and each of these seeds has the power to undermine our ability to be our best selves.  By practicing honesty, we are allowing our best self to flourish.

It's appropriate to take a moment to acknowledge that while lying can hurt, so sometimes can the truth.  Yoga advocates for truthfulness in all situations, and at the same time says that non-violence (called ahimsa; in children's yoga we often call it "kindness") supersedes all other behaviors.  So how do we act when these two values - honesty and kindness - rub up against one another?  All of us, certainly, have been in a situation where telling the truth can hurt the feelings of someone we care about (who has not been asked by a friend, "Does this outfit make me look fat?").  Situations in which two equally important values conflict are often the most challenging in our lives.  There are no easy solutions.  And it's important that our children see us working through these challenges.  Their lives, after all, won't be free of them, so what good are we doing them by protecting them from the reality of it?  Life is challenging.  And seeing you acknowledge what challenges you and watching as you work to find a solution that doesn't compromise your values can offer them an important life skill.   

As a Yoga teacher, it amazes me how well children understand the subtleties of these conflicts.  They really do get it.  And Yoga class is an ideal opportunity to discuss and explore values such as honesty.  One way to teach kids to measure honesty is through what's called "the four gates of speech":  Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? and Is this the right moment to say it?  For younger children, stick to the first two measurements: Is it true? and Is it kind?  Ask them to tell you what they think truthfulness means, why it's important and how it relates to kindness.  Guaranteed, the balance between truth and kindness is no new dilemma for school-aged children.  They've all experienced it.  The important thing is to support them as they think about how to honor both in their lives - so when it happens again (and it will), they have some personal guidelines for how to handle it.

Encourage children to practice by asking them to share observations or comments about one another that are both truthful and kind.  This can be done moving around a circle (or tossing a ball across the circle; each child can share a comment about a fellow student, then toss them the ball - the receiving child then shares a comment about another student, to whom they, then, toss the ball.  Continue this activity until every child has had at least one opportunity to be both the giver and the receiver of a kind and truthful comment).  You can also have children work with partners.  Either way, it's a great way to support these two critical values - and at the same time build community and foster self-esteem.

When teaching older children - pre-teens and teens - draw on all of the "four gates of speech,"  and discuss honesty in all of its glorious complexity.  And, of course, there's the most critical reason why Yoga promotes honesty: by telling the truth, we begin to recognize truth around and within us.  The root word of satya (non-lying) is sat, which means "being."  Telling the truth requires that we inquire within ourselves and discover our most deeply held truths:  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is my life about?  Practicing honesty is the gateway to deep self-reflection, teaching us about what lies within our hearts.  And only when we're connected to our truest selves, can we honestly say that we're in all ways truthful.

Lisa Burk-McCoy, RYT200, is working toward a 500 hour teaching certificate in Classical Yoga from the YogaLife Institute.  She also holds a prenatal yoga certification, and children's yoga certifications from ChildLight Yoga and Itsy Bitsy Yoga. Lisa currently serves as an instructor and business consultant for ChildLight Yoga. When not practicing yoga, she dabbles as a musician, playing flute in a local contra-dance band and teaching classical flute lessons to children and adults. She is blessed with a wonderful family–a husband, son and daughter, and a menagerie of pets. They make their home in Exeter, NH.