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Promoting Honesty in Young Children

Don’t you dare lie to me!

You can miss out on TV for a whole month!

Tell me the truth!

Why did you lie!

I’ll never trust you again!

Where did you get that!

These reactions are not likely to help in getting our children to be honest.  There is quite a lot we can do to teach truthfulness to our youngsters.
Honesty is vital for building trust, respect and closeness in family members and society generally.


Healthy example

The most important thing that we can do to foster truthfulness is to set a healthy example, by being honest ourselves. Do you ever tell your child to tell a person on the phone that you are out? Think about the example you are showing.
Our children need wholesome role models to learn from and emulate. Therefore it’s vital that we are fully aware of the influences that are present in their lives, and the likely impact on them. Eg. TV, electronic games, computer, etc. We can then limit their exposure to lying, and other undesirable behaviours.  The younger they are, the more they need these restrictions.
If we are handing our child over to another carer, it is important to ensure that we know this person extremely well, and that he is likely to set a good example.


Encourage truth tellers

The second most helpful action that parents can take, is to encourage children for telling the truth. Eg. “I appreciate you telling me the truth, even though it would have been hard to do.”


Child Development

We also need to be aware of Child Developmental stages. Children up until about 5 or 6 will make up stories, as answers for our questions. They are not lying until they have developed a conscience, and understand what truth means. This happens gradually, and we can still consistently teach honesty. We need to have realistic expectations based on these stages, and explain ideas in language that suits their level of development.


Expect honesty

We need to expect honesty from our children.  If we really aren’t sure if they are lying or not, it’s advisable to give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming dishonesty.  We can show our children that we understand a desire to lie, on a particular occasion, as it can be difficult to ‘come clean’ at times.


Don’t over-react when a child lies

If we punish, yell or keep going on about our child’s lie, we may actually increase the lying. If our child expects harshness from us, when he tells the truth about an action that is likely to displease us, he may lie to avoid the pain. Having a more democratic, Authoritative style of parenting, will work far better for all family members, in the long term. Of course we need to tell our child that it is wrong to lie, and have a logical consequence (where appropriate). It is unhelpful and damaging to shame our child. We can read and tell stories about the adverse effects of lying, so that our child understands the need for honesty. ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is a good story to tell.  Role-playing can be useful as well.


Logical consequence


Of course evident dishonesty needs to be dealt with, by giving a reprimand and having a respectful, reasonable and preferably related consequence (if necessary). Eg. If our child takes a toy, or other object from a shop or friend, we need to let her know, that this is wrong, and the reason it is unacceptable. We can then make a time to return the item, and require our child to give it back, and apologise.


Teach the value of honesty

Teaching truth-telling needs to be done on an ongoing basis, preferably in the context of what is happening in our lives, at the time. We need to explain the difference between a made-up story and a real one. If our youngster tells a ‘tall tale’, which is common for pre-schoolers, we can ask them “Is that what actually happened or what you wish happened?” This will help them to differentiate.


Creating rules for the family

We can come up (with our children’s input) with some home rules to further stress the value of honesty such as:

We don’t take things that belong to others without their permission
We tell the truth even when it is a hard thing to do


Labels and personal attacks

Children need to be told that the lying behaviour is not okay. It is not wise to label our child as a liar, or any other label, as this can be passed around and can stick. It will be difficult for the child to break the expectation that others have of him.


Find out the cause of lying that is becoming a habit

This can be done by listening actively to our child, spending quality and fun time with him, and sharing our feelings and thoughts with him. Ensuring that our child is empowered and nurtured will also be crucial. A child may lie to avoid doing a job or to get out of a difficult situation. In order to get what she wants, or to escape an argument, she may also lie.


Seek professional help for chronic lying

If we are unable to get our child to be truthful most of the time, we need to get some professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.