“I don’t think my child understands the importance of honesty,” a mother once said to me, after she found her child lying about eating Halloween candy that had been made off-limits.
We teach children how to count, to read, to tie their shoelaces. We teach them to develop the abilities they need to be happy, active, and well-adjusted adults. Honesty is one of those behaviors. It forms the basis of trust in our relationships. Learning how to be honest and communicate in a respectful, kind, and truthful manner is an important skill we need to teach our children.
In my new book, The Truth About Lying: Teaching Honesty to Children at Every Age and Stage, I draw on over 20 years of my psychological research to share what we have learned about how we can teach children about honesty, how we can deal with our children’s dishonesty, and how we can develop a close relationship based on open and truthful communication. Here are three steps parents can take to raise more honest kids.
1. Talk with children about honesty
It is important to talk about honesty with children. But when do you have these conversations and what do you say?
The best time to discuss the importance of honesty and truthfulness is when you and your child are calm and relaxed, not in the heat of the moment after you have just caught your child lying. If you talk about honesty and discuss why it is important at times when the child is able to hear you and process what you are saying, then when you come to those moments when you are disciplining your child about lying, you can refer to these principles without getting into long explanations or heated discussions.
The important elements of these conversations include explaining what honesty is and why it is important. For young children, a simple definition is enough; simple and short discussions are fine. For older children and teenagers, you can have more elaborate discussions about what it means to be truthful to yourself and to others and why.
For example, you can discuss with them examples of how you can practice honesty (e.g., “When you make a mistake, you admit it”). As children grow older and into adolescence, they can come up with their own examples and discuss how honesty was (or was not) practiced in those situations. You can ask children questions to reflect on how to be honest in different situations (e.g., “A kid forgot to do her homework, and the teacher asked where it is. What does honesty look like in that situation?”). You can also discuss people’s intentions, and the potential outcomes that result from honest or dishonest behavior.
Stories are a great tool for having these conversations. They can be cautionary tales about what happens when you lie. But, as I explain in my book, our research has found that the most effective stories illustrate to children how to be honest even when it might be easier to lie. They can show that there are positive consequences to being honest—and there are times when it’s OK to confess the truth.
You can ask your younger child questions about what the characters said (truthful/lie), what the different characters may be feeling, why the characters acted the way they did, how they could have acted, and what were the outcomes of their actions.
Parents of older children and teenagers can also benefit from this technique as a starting point for conversations about honesty. For instance, parents can discuss characters in books their older child is reading and bring out elements related to honesty and dishonesty. You can tell personal stories about times when you were honest (or dishonest), telling the child what you felt and what happened to you. You can also discuss stories you hear of in the media. For older children and teenagers, there should be more of a give-and-take between parent and child about honesty, with the youth having an active voice in that conversation.
2. Acknowledge and recognize honesty
Acknowledging honesty when you see it is an important and powerful way to foster truthfulness.
We often notice children being dishonest and we (rightfully) draw their attention to it. However, we also need to frequently draw attention to their honesty. Saying that honesty is important, but then not giving it any recognition or value in practice, sends a weak message about how truly important you think honesty is.
When you see the behavior, label it (e.g., “I see you are being truthful about the mistakes you made”). You can give positive appreciation (e.g., “Thank you for being honest about where you were this afternoon”) and praise (e.g., “I am glad you told the truth about making a mess”).
But be careful not to overdo the praise. Avoid insincere or excessive praise (e.g., “Wow, you told the truth! It is just so amazing how honest you are being”), as children can easily detect false, exaggerated praise. That’s especially true when you are trying to emphasize honesty, sincerity, and trustworthiness! You should also try to avoid comparative praise (e.g., “You are much more honest now”), which can backfire by communicating to the child that they are perceived as being dishonest; that may obscure any positive message about what they did right.
If used with sincerity and mindfulness, acknowledgement and praise are powerful tools for fostering children’s honesty and their internalization of this standard of behavior.
3. Model honesty
If you want your children to be honest, you have to show them how to be honest. Matching our deeds to our words is more powerful than words alone. It undermines the message when we tell kids that honesty is important, but then they see us be dishonest, even in small ways. The message children derive from mismatched behavior is that we give lip service to the virtue of honesty, but when it suits us we can “fudge” it and lie.
How does that happen? Parents may not realize the small fib that they told (e.g., saying their 13 year old is under 12 to pay the child fare) is sending a powerful message. When we send and receive messages that say “it’s OK” to do that—but just a little—then we all become “fudgers.” If parents think honesty is important and should be maintained, then they need to exemplify that in their behavior.
This is also true for keeping promises. As a parent, you should only make promises you know you can keep—and commit to them. Breaking a promise compromises our trustworthiness. If promises are heedlessly made and easily broken, children learn they don’t need to keep to their commitments or be honest about what they will or won’t do. For parents, being honest means we have to sometimes take a step back, think before we speak, and only make promises we know we can deliver. The benefit of being thoughtfully honest is that your child will see you as dependable, a trustworthy source of information, and emotionally reliable.
Through the conversations we have with children about honesty, we can foster their moral reasoning, as well as consideration of other people’s feelings and perspectives. When such discussions are paired with the recognization of honesty and what children learn from observing the adults around them, our messages are mutually reinforced. What we do, what we say, and how we act all influence the child.