If you ask parents to name the most important values that they want to instill in their children, honesty is almost always high on the list. The same is true of qualities that we look for in a mate or close friend. In order to build trust, we need to believe in someone’s word. How many times have you asked a loved one, “Please, just tell me the truth…”
If your goal is to build honesty and discourage lying in your children, what’s the best way to do it? If you do catch your child in a lie, what should you do then?
The answer is not so simple. Indeed, it depends a great deal on the age of your child, the type of lie being told and the motives behind it. In the last blog, we explored the when, where, and why and just how often kids lie. The first step in dealing with lying–or any other troublesome behavior–is to know what is normal given the age of your child. Bright, lovable (normal) kids lie–first as a way of avoiding punishment but eventually learning how to lie to be liked and accepted by others and to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
Step #1: Remind yourself that children who tell lies are not bad–they are simply afraid of getting in trouble or making someone angry at them.
Step #2: Don’t press your child to confess or act like a private investigator trying to catch someone.
Usually you know that your child has done something wrong and then has lied about it. For example, your older child takes a toy away from the baby and then denies it; or your daughter eats cookies before dinner when you told her not to; or your son has not finished doing homework but starts playing video games which is against your rules.
Step #3: Either ask your child to explain to you what rule has been broken or, explain to your child what was wrong about his or her behavior.
Decide on a reasonable consequence–meaning one that “fits the crime”. In the examples above, you could take the “stolen” toy away from your child for the day; tell your daughter that she will not be able to have dessert after dinner since she ate the cookies; tell your son he cannot play video games for the rest of the day even when his homework is finished.
The most common responses will either be because your child didn’t want to get in trouble or didn’t want to make you (or a teacher or friend) mad at her. Perhaps it is difficult for your child to make a mistake. Be curious about the motive for the lie, and help your child see how lying didn’t really make anything better.
Step #5: Explain the difference between white “lies” and inappropriate lies.
Since small children are very literal, make sure you explain that sometimes you keep “your feelings” (white lies) to yourself in order to keep from hurting another’s feelings. Think about how confusing this concept must be to young children trying to learn about telling the truth. It takes many years to figure out the complexities.
A time honored story about the negative consequences of lying is one of Aesop’s fables, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. (If you are unfamiliar with this story or want to show your child a short video, here is a link). This teaching tale is a good one when a lie is motivated by the desire for attention or when lots of exaggeration and drama are thrown in.
Interestingly enough, Victoria Talwar, one of the foremost researchers on children and lying, found that The Boy Who Cried Wolf was not terribly effective at eliciting honesty in her experiments. Her explanation is that kids already know that lying can get them into trouble. They need to learn the positive effects of telling the truth instead.
The story that Talwar found reduced lying between 50-75% of the time was George Washington and the Cherry Tree. In this legendary teaching tale, the young George uses his new hatchet to cut down everything in sight–including his father’s cherry tree. When his angry father confronts him, George confesses, and his father tells him how proud he is, and how hearing George tell the truth is worth more than a thousand cherry trees. In fact, just telling your child that you will be really proud or happy if they tell you the truth helps kids open up.
Step #8: Reward truth-telling and have consequences for the lying itself.
Another strategy that reinforces honesty is to tell your child that you will not punish him (or be angry) for the inappropriate behavior if he tells you the truth. When you hear the truth, tell her how proud you are. Then explain what the consequence will be if the troublesome behavior is repeated in the future.
Far too many parents punish the child’s behavior (the one he just lied about) but do not punish the lying. Why shouldn’t the child try to lie again the next time? A more effective approach is to give a consequence not only for their bad behavior but also for lying about it. In other words, reverse the incentives to make honesty bring some rewards.
When asked if lying is wrong, over 90% of 5 year-olds say yes, because lies get you in trouble. It is not until the age of 11 or 12 that the majority of kids understand how lying hurts other people, damages trust in relationships, and makes you feel guilty and bad about yourself.
Rather than emphasizing how terrible lies are, it is essential that parents teach kids how and why honesty is so important. Use songs and educational activities starting when your child is very young (like the song H-O-N-E-S-T-Y) to help build emotional intelligence and develop character.
Step #10: Model truth-telling. As your child gets older, share lessons from your own life. Think about times when you told the truth even when it was difficult, and you had to accept the consequences of your mistake. Find books, movies and other media for older kids (like the Pass It On commercial) to bring home the point of honesty and integrity. Be the kind of adult you want your child to grow up to be. Tell them the truth. It is a long and winding road.