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Honesty and Entrapment

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses how honesty can cause entrapment. It follows the section on Rewarding Honesty.

Judical system leanings

Before we leave analogies between honesty in the courtroom and in everyday life, let me note that the judicial system leans—though with some exceptions—toward sympathy for people who have been deliberately tempted by government officials to participate in unlawful activities. The process is called entrapment. Life, the courts seem to say, offers more than enough temptations without having to produce more culprits by using enticing governmental snares.

Child-rearing entrapment

This concept of entrapment has some application to child-rearing and honesty, even at a very early age. When I asked Shannon, the mother of two toddlers, how she dealt with honesty, she said that she is careful not to provide temptations for her young sons to lie. For example, if she notices that one of the boys has a soiled diaper but is fully engaged in play, she doesn't ask him if he needs a diaper change.

"I try to make the question perfectly clear. If I ask him whether his diaper needs changing, we might have a difference of opinion rather than fact. If he says 'no,' he might be telling me that he knows his diaper is dirty, but he doesn't care because his play is too much fun to be interrupted. I also don't ask him—which is a clear question—whether he has a soiled diaper. If he's fully engaged in play, he'll then be tempted to lie.

"I say, 'L.J., I can smell your dirty diaper. Do you want me to change it now or in five minutes?' I've given him a bit of choice, I've acknowledged how important his play is to him at that moment, but I haven't surrendered my nose indefinitely to his whims, either. I find that with this kind of approach we avoid many little power struggles, and I don't encourage him to lie."

This is a very important principle. Honesty is a demanding virtue to practice. It will not be inspired in a young boy—or a boy of any age—by setting up little entrapments followed by little lectures when the test is failed. This kind of tactic can hardly help yielding a mindset in which a boy is calculating the odds each time of being caught in a lie.

Damaged relationship

I know of a father who irreparably damaged his relationship with his son by inquiring of his son every day, when he carne home from work, whether the boy had been sucking his thumb. The boy always said he hadn't; but he usually had been, and his thumb had the telltale wrinkled skin to prove it. The father then examined the thumb and delivered a reproachful look or lecture. The thumb-sucking continued until the boy was at least ten years old because the thumb was one of his main consolations for his unhappiness.


In a society like ours, boys even in childhood are regularly in situations of being alone or anonymous, with the odds of a lie being detected not transparently high—unlike those of our thumb-sucker. Detection calculations, if that is the way a boy deals with a situation, are often going to yield a decision to lie. A more effective path is to reward every instance of honesty that takes special courage or other virtue, establishing honesty as an aspect of character that every person should honor and cultivate.

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Use caution when accusing others

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