Honesty is important in life, and it definitely matters to parents—surveys show that parents value honesty above all other character traits. But did you know that some common ways we teach children about lying actually encourage them to lie more? Let’s look at how our good intentions are getting in the way of raising truthful and trustworthy children, and then we can explore some ways to teach kids about honesty that really work.
Myth 1: Ignore lying because they’ll grow out of it
Sometimes children’s lies are so obvious that we figure they must not know what they’re doing. When our adorable child (with chocolate frosting smeared all over their face) insists they didn’t sneak some cake before dinner, we may assume they can’t possibly know what it means to lie and they’ll grow out of lying once they do understand.
We may not need to punish a young child for lying, but our children need us to help them learn the difference between what’s real and what’s not. Ignoring lying can get in the way of them learning when it’s ok to tell a story, when it’s important to be honest, and that we need to know that we’re note blending them together as if fact and fiction are truth.
Myth 2: Ignore lying to protect a child’s self-esteem
Another common misunderstanding is that we should avoid holding children accountable for lying because it will make them feel bad about themselves. There are two important reasons this does more harm than good. The first is that they’re probably going to feel bad anyway. Psychologists have shown that when people lie, they typically feel a twinge of distress that lasts well after the lie is finished. Then there’s the gnawing guilt and the stress of keeping our stories straight—that feels pretty awful too. But here’s the deeper issue: feeling bad about lying is an important part of learning to make better choices.
When children do things that go against what they know is right, the feelings of guilt and remorse help them notice that they should change what they’re doing. This prompts them to act differently so they can shake off those unpleasant sensations and feel better. When we address lying, we help children build skills to work through the down times and to act to rebuild a positive sense of themselves. This process is an essential part of how children learn to recover from challenges and create a stable, lasting sense of self-respect that’s better for their mental wellness than a sense of self-esteem that doesn’t match the reality they’re feeling on the inside.
Myth 3- Focus on a wrongdoing and not the lie to cover it up
Parents often find themselves in the tough situation where their child has done something wrong and then lied about it. What do you do—address the wrongdoing or the lie? According to research, most parents focus on the wrongdoing and ignore the lie, but here’s the issue with that: When you ignore the lie to cover up a wrong, you show your child that they have nothing to lose by being deceitful.
Next time they do something wrong, they might as well try lying to you about it. That may not seem like a big deal when your child is young and the wrongdoings are minor, but as they get older and more independent, having a habit of lying can be downright dangerous.
Myth 4- Punish children harshly for lying and they’ll stop lying
When children know they’ll experience a harsh punishment for lying, it encourages them to become better, more convincing liars. One of the main reasons children lie is so they can stay out of trouble, and researchers show that when children anticipate a harsh punishment, they’ll keep lying to avoid getting caught.
Ways to teach children to be honest that really work
We’ve seen that ignoring and harshly punishing lying don’t teach children to be honest, so what’s a parent to do?
The first thing we can do is to shift our perspective a bit and focus on teaching children to value honesty. When they tell the truth, our child shows us that they are trustworthy. As they grow and want more freedom, we need to know they’ll do what’s right even when we aren’t watching. If they have shown us they’ll act responsibly, be where they say they’ll be, and tell us the truth, then we will feel like we can give them the freedom they want. But if they lie, we can’t trust what they’re going to do, and that means we would be irresponsible to give them freedom.
We can also help children connect that being honest feels good and lying feels bad. Remember those sensations we mentioned earlier that come along with lying—twinges of distress, guilt, fear of getting caught—that doesn’t feel good. On the other hand, telling the truth can give us the warm, expansive feeling of pride for having done the right thing. It also helps us know we are in control of making our own choices and creating our own consequences, which is empowering for our sense of self and for our mental wellness.
Finally, we can reward honesty by giving a reasonable consequence for a wrongdoing and a separate reasonable consequence for lying. This is a little easier to understand with an example: Let’s say your child is playing video games and has a timer to remind them when it’s time to stop. You know they’ve been playing longer than the timer was originally set for so they must have added extra time.
You might say, “I know your timer should have rung by now. I’m going to ask you what happened. If you tell the truth, you will get a reasonable consequence for having cheated about your timer. If you lie, there will be a consequence for the cheating, and another one for the lie.”
If they tell the truth, then perhaps they lose the privilege to play the game tomorrow. If they lie, they lose the game for three days. This shows them there is a consequence for a wrongdoing no matter what, and they might as well tell the truth and not risk extra (reasonable) punishment.
How do I know this works? Well, my children are mostly grown now and we used this technique regularly when they were young. By the time they were teens they knew they could be honest and they’d have a reasonable consequence for the wrongdoing, but they felt it was worth telling the truth for the help and the care that came with the honesty. If you lay the groundwork that shows your children you value honesty when they’re young, they are more likely to tell the truth and enjoy the good vibes that come along with being an honest person throughout their life.
Colleen Doyle Bryant is the author of five books and more than 50 learning resources about making good choices for the right reasons. Her Talking with Trees series for elementary students and Truth Be Told Quotes series for teens are used in curriculums around the world to teach good character traits. Her latest release for adults, Rooted in Decency: Finding inner peace in a world gone sideways, looks at how the decline in decency is affecting us personally, and how we can move forward to a place of more kindness and cooperation.