Help Me Grow | United Way of Utah County

How to Teach Children Honesty

It can be surprising, frustrating, and worrisome when your child first lies to you. It can also be really hard to know how to respond! Lying is actually a normal and necessary part of a child’s development. Though parents should teach their children to be honest from a young age, they shouldn’t be too concerned when their child begins to tell lies, because it’s a normal part of childhood that every child goes through.

Only one-third of three-year-olds lie, but 80% of four-year-olds do. By age 6, that number goes up to 96%. That’s because children reach a new developmental milestone around preschool age that gives them new cognitive and social skills involved in lying. Telling lies signals a new point in development – it shows that your child has began thinking about others’ thoughts and perspectives, and they’ve realized that they can use words to make you believe something that isn’t true.

Why do children lie? Sometimes they are seeking attention from adults, they are afraid of being punished, they are trying to sneak something they aren’t supposed to have, or they don’t want to do something they’ve been asked to do. When you think about it, all of these feelings make sense for your child to have, and even we as adults can probably relate in certain situations. Who hasn’t told a fib to get out of doing something they don’t want to do?

On the other hand, we sometimes teach our children to lie in certain situations so we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be confusing for children when we’ve taught them to say, “thank you, I love it!” when they receive a gift they don’t like or eat a food they don’t enjoy. It’s important for children to learn about white lies like these if they’re going to develop good social skills, but still, it can be confusing for them to distinguish when telling a lie is appropriate or not. 

When you catch your child in a lie, use that opportunity to teach them about honesty. For example, if they tell you that they didn’t sneak any candy before dinner, but there’s clear evidence in the chocolate smeared on their face, tell them why lying is unacceptable.Talk to your child about how important it is to be honest, and set fair consequences together for what will happen if he or she tells a lie. Tell your child that learning to be honest is important in earning your trust as they get older, and they may not be given certain privileges unless you can trust them to tell the truth.

It also may be helpful to change the way you speak to your children, giving them fewer opportunities to lie to you. For example, if you asked your son or daughter to make their bed and you know that they didn’t do it, don’t ask them “Did you make your bed today?” This gives them the opportunity to lie to you when you already know the answer, and no matter what they say, you won’t be happy. If you already know the answer to something, don’t ask your child, because their fear of being punished may tempt them to lie to you. Instead say something like, “I noticed that your bed hasn’t been made today. If you want to play outside, you’ll need to make your bed first.” This allows you and your child to communicate without giving him or her the opportunity to lie. 

If your child is telling lies that are just “tall tales”, or silly stories that didn’t really happen, they might be doing it to get attention from adults. Usually these are pretty harmless, but it is still important to teach children to be honest. One thing that might help is setting aside special one-on-one time for you and your child. Special time where children are allowed to choose the activity and they have their parent’s undivided attention for just 10 minutes or so can make a big difference in helping your child feel content, heard, and loved. For more information about special time with your child, click here.

One of my favorite quotes is by James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” If you want to raise honest children, strive to be as honest in your own life as possible. When your children hear you tell the truth, even when it’s difficult to do so, they will really learn the value of honesty.

Even after trying the solutions mentioned above, there will still be occasions when your child lies to you. Remember, this is a normal part of childhood, and in the course of learning honesty your child will make mistakes. Be understanding of your child’s developing brain and behavior, but set firm consequences and teach principles of honesty with love and kindness.

For more information about how to deal with lying children, visit: 

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