Your child’s standing right in front of you with a ring of chocolate crumbs around his mouth. “No,” he assures you, he did not take a cookie from the cookie jar.
You stand their blinking because it’s just so darn obvious. He’s 5. He is staring you straight in the face and boldly lying.
Pause. Because what you do next matters. A lot. More than anything, you want to raise honest kids. Even more than raising kids who are hardworking, compassionate, or financially savvy, you want your child to have integrity.
In a 2015 poll by Pew Research Center, honesty tops the list of values parents want their kids to embody as adults, outranking traits like compassion, ambition, and financial responsibility. But raising honest children isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In fact, teaching children about telling the truth can get morally murky, since parents often lie to their own kids — even parents who instruct their children to always be honest, according to a study published in the Journal of Moral Education. Ready to set the record straight? Here’s the truth about raising honest kids, age by age.
Early Years (1 – 5)
While children may slip into an occasional untruth as soon as they can string together a sentence, these (usually unintentional) utterances aren’t really lies. Around age 3, children can begin to tell actual fibs, or intentional falsehoods, says Kate Paquin, a parenting educator and family coach. These early lies are usually innocent and experimental, she notes. A child may take three cookies, but say they only took two, or claim that they didn’t steal a sister’s favorite toy
despite a sister’s shrieks.
“Parents can become very alarmed by these lies, if it seems like a child never lied before but suddenly he’s lying quite a bit,” says Paquin.
But you should remember that toddlers tell small lies to test boundaries. It’s during the preschool years that children develop the cognitive ability to tell lies. This is when the concept that other people have thoughts separate from your own begins to develop. To tell a lie, children must gain the ability to hold back the truth and to make something up instead. But lying at this age is normal and to be expected, so how you react is important. If you respond angrily, or even with shock, you risk making your child fearful … which may possibly lead to more lies, says Jane Nelson, author of the classic parenting book, Positive Discipline A-to-Z (Ballantine; 2006).
To discourage dishonesty and reinforce positive habits, Nelson recommends acknowledging the lie simply and without shame: “I know you took three cookies and it’s OK if you want three instead of two, only next time please tell me the truth.”
Elementary Years (6 – 12)
Catching a toddler with her hand in the cookie jar is one thing, but shouldn’t older kids know better? How should you react when you catch your school-age child in a lie?
First, it’s helpful for you to share your values and expectations about honesty so your kids have no questions about where you stand.
Just say it: “In our family, we tell the truth.”
When you learn that your child has lied, either to you, at school, or in another context, you should respond firmly, but without a lot of emotion or energy (that means no yelling), says child psychologist Kristen C. Wynns, Ph.D., author of The No Wimpy Parenting Handbook (Create Space Independent Publishing; 2017).
“If parents give attention to the lying behavior by having a strong reaction, they may inadvertently reinforce that behavior,” Wynns notes.
But does that mean letting young kids off the hook? Not necessarily.
“Depending on the lie, parents may want to show grace, for example, ‘OK, next time we expect you to tell us the truth,’ or we will give a consequence,” Wynns says. If parents take the consequence route, enhance the teachable moment by matching the consequence to the “crime” in question. For instance, if a child lied about feeding the dog, have him do an extra dog-related chore for a few days, Wynns suggests.
Teen Years (13 – 18)
Pretty little lies.
Yes of course you want and need your teenager to be honest. But teaching honesty to teens can get tricky — especially when savvy teens catch parents telling fibs and “white lies.”
What should you do when your teen calls you out for a small untruth, like telling a relative that you’re not available for dinner when you really just want to stay home? When an aware teen confronts you about an untruth, start by ‘fessing up, says Wynns.
“Own the lie. ‘Yes, I lied to Aunt Martha and I shouldn’t have done that. Next time I’ll be honest with her,’” is a worthy reply.
But don’t stop there — seize the opportunity to discuss the nuances of honesty and model the value of apologizing and asking for forgiveness, says Wynns. “If the lie was meant to spare someone’s feelings or to help navigate an awkward social situation, you can explain that being honest sometimes conflicts with the ‘bigger picture’ of maintaining a relationship, and how sometimes we must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of telling the (whole) truth.”
By acknowledging the challenges of navigating the world with integrity — including your own slip-ups — you foster moral maturity in teens and help them to grow into trustworthy, honest adults.