Teaching Truthfulness and Honesty

by Shari Steelsmith

Part I: Preschoolers

Tip - Start early in teaching your child what honesty is, what lying is, and why telling the truth is better.

Keep in mind - It's not uncommon for preschoolers to confuse wishes with reality and to present wishes as the truth. For example, when one three-year-old was asked where she got the doll she was holding in the toy store, she replied, "It's my doll." It wasn't her doll; she had picked it up off the shelf. She wished it were her doll.

Elizabeth Crary, author of the children's book about honesty, Finders, Keepers?, points out, "Wishes are not exactly lies, but neither are they the truth. Developmentally, children this age [preschool] are learning about the difference between fantasy and reality. Teaching the concepts of truth and honesty at this time is quite compatible."

Tools - There are three specific things you can do to help your child understand "true" and "not true."

  • Play a game with your child in which you ask him questions that are clearly true or not true. For example, you say, "I'm a dinosaur" and your child answers, "Not true." Or say, "I have blue eyes" and your child answers "true." Start with something fun or silly like the first question and gradually turn to questions that are more reality-based and connected to actions, for example, take a candy off the table and eat it, then say, "I didn't eat the candy." Explain to your child that we call such untrue statements "lies."
  • Show the consequences of lying. Read stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Pinocchio. Talk about why it's better to tell the truth (so we can trust each other, so people can get the help they need, so we know what really happened, so the right person gets the blame, etc.) Emphasize that you want your child to tell you the truth always, even if he thinks you'll get mad. Reassure him that you always love him, even when you're mad.
  • Lavish praise on preschoolers when they tell the truth, especially when it isn't in their own self-interest. Give more attention to the fact that they told the truth than to the misbehavior. For example, "Thank you for telling me the truth. Mommy really likes it when you do that. Now go get the sponge and I'll help you clean up this spill."

If your child tells you a story or a wish instead of the truth, don't overreact and accuse him of lying. Say, "That sounds like a story to me. I like you to tell me the truth. Let's clean up this mess--you get a towel and I'll help you wipe."


Part II: School-aged Children

Tip - Emphasize honesty as a valued character trait and behavior in your family.

Keep in mind - Lying usually works for children in a short-term way: if believed, they avoid punishment. Most kids have a hard time looking beyond this to the longer-term consequences of guilt, remorse, and damage to relationships.


Tools - The following ideas will help you get started on teaching your school-aged child about the value of truthfulness and give you a few pointers on dealing with lying.

  • In Elizabeth Crary's choose-your-own ending book, Finders, Keepers?, a young boy experiences both the short-term rewards of dishonesty and the long-term consequences, as well as the less obvious rewards, of telling the truth.

Crary says, "Reading books like mine and discussing 'What If?' scenarios help parents illustrate the pitfalls of lying and reinforce the idea that they expect the truth." Some possible "What if?" questions for children are:

"What if . . . it were a rule in your house not to play in the neighboring field. But you disobeyed the rule and went out to play hockey with your friends. Your hockey stick broke on a rock. When your mom asked you how it happened, you told her your little brother must have been playing with it."

(Short-term reward: No punishment for playing in the field. Long-term consequences: Unfair blame on sibling, damage to relationship with sibling and parent, guilt, remorse, erosion of self-esteem)


"What if . . . you were playing with a stick and pushed out several rungs of the fence with it. Your dad saw it and asked you, 'Did you take a hammer and knock out the fence?' You answered, 'No' and told yourself, 'I didn't use a hammer to do it.'"

(Short-term reward: No punishment for dmaging the fence. Long-term consequences: A ruined fence, damage to relationship with parent, guilt, remorse, erosion of self-esteem)

  • Set a good example for your children. Be truthful and honest in your own everyday behavior. Never ask your children to lie for you ("Tell him I'm not home"). Let your children see you go out of your way to be honest: for example, if a clerk gives you too much change, point it out and return it. Admit your own mistakes and let your children see how you rectify them. Parental example is very powerful.

  • Give your children a second chance to tell the truth. If you sense your child is embarking on a lie, you can say, "Stop. I really want the truth. Start again." Be more quick to praise truthfulness than you are to come down on a lie. (See last week's Tip for more on this.) Children who can trust their parents not to fly off the handle are more likely to confess wrongdoing.
  • Some families have this policy: If you break a rule, you get a consequence. If you lie about it, you get another consequence. If a child is simply lying to avoid punishment, this policy can help motivate her to be truthful.

Part III: Adolescents

Tip - Take advantage of teens' increased intellectual abilities by helping them understand the realistic, long-term consequences of lying, and the sometimes difficult, but more rewarding results of truthfulness.

Keep in mind - Louise Tracy points out in her book on parenting adolescents, Grounded for Life?!, that teens are out of your sight a good part of the day. There's a lot that can happen that you have no immediate control over or knowledge of. It is essential that there be an adequate level of trust between parent and child. Truthfulness builds and maintains trust and lying erodes or destroys it.

Tools - Here are a few ideas and techniques that will help you broach the topic of honesty and to respond to lying if it happens.

  • Discuss the concept of honesty with your teen. Talk about gray areas such as: exaggerating, flattery, telling only part of the truth, cheating, lying to protect oneself or another, white lies, etc.

    Talk openly about the personal costs of lying. In good people, it causes guilt, remorse, or at the least, a twinge of conscience. Lying erodes personal integrity.

    Ask your teen to visualize his or her ideal girlfriend/ boyfriend (or in the future, spouse). Then ask your teen what kind of personal integrity that person would expect a partner to have? Would she or he want to be with someone who lies?

  • Discuss the consequences of lying to a parent. Acknowledge that you can't always know what your teen is doing and emphasize that you are placing trust in him to behave in an appropriate fashion and to be truthful to you about his activities.

    If he lies to you, then that damages the relationship between you and destroys the trust you have placed in him. He must then make efforts toward repairing the relationship and earning back your trust.

For example, a teen who disrespects his curfew, comes in late and lies about it, might experience the following consequences: 1. No outings apart from family for a certain period of time; 2. A much stricter curfew for a certain period of time until the parent is satisfied the teen is able and willing to abide by the rules. Apologizing and respecting these consequences would demonstrate the teen's good faith efforts toward earning back your trust.
  • Praise goodness. Unfortunately, in most families, achievement is remarked on and rewarded vastly more than goodness. This is partly why "A" students are caught cheating on tests. Notice, value, and praise honesty and other moral behavior.
  • Remain calm when your teen lies to you. Few things are more infuriating, but flying off the handle rarely motivates any teen to change behavior. Instead, most will put their energy into defending themselves or warding off your rage. Take a deep breath or a time-out, if you need to. Come back to the discussion when you are both calm and explain again the consequences of lying. A parent who calmly expresses deep disappointment in a teen's behavior and sets appropriate consequences can be much more effective than one who rants and raves.

This material has been adapted from Grounded for Life?! Stop Blowing Your Fuse and Start


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