We received this question from a reader: “Wondering if either of you had advice about how to help children understand and apply honesty to their lives. What would you do if they choose to lie? My children are 9 and 10, and I want them to grow up to be trustworthy, honest–so important–but so often a challenge for them. Any thoughts that may help?”
This is a good question because I think it’s a common challenge in parenting.
It’s hard for me to write briefly on this subject because there are so many good things to be learned in this area of parenting. So I’ll tell you a few things that were specific to our house, and then refer you to a few sites that have ideas that I agree with and used when raising my children.
1- Children are not born knowing about honesty, they must be taught.
2 – Children follow the example of their parents. I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.”
3 – An episode of lying or stealing does not make your child bad, or a “liar” (they are a good kid, who made a wrong choice)
4- The age of the child determines how to handle the situation. If a child is 3 years old or younger, teach the difference between reality and fantasy. Sometimes you may need to say, “That sounds like a story to me”. Help them learn the difference.
Think about how many time you have had discussions about honesty with your child. It seems that as parents we tend to talk about honesty only when there is a problem with dishonesty. And we assume they are learning about honesty in church, or school or magically on their own. So we don’t bring it up much in between. You need to start early and talk about honesty often.
At our house the saying was, “If it’s not yours, just leave it alone”. Often kids (and some adults) see an item lying around and because it does not have a name on it, or there is nobody guarding it they think the object is free for the taking. Teach your child that it does not matter where they see something, or how much they would like to have it, if it does not belong to them they should just leave it alone.
Teach a child how it feels when they have been dishonest and honest. Feelings that come with dishonesty are uncomfortable; they might worry that someone will find out what they have done. They have to hide the item they took because they don’t want anyone to question them as to where they got it. Or they have to remember the lie they told so they can re-tell the story the same way if they are asked again. Teach them that when they are honest they don’t have to worry about any of those things; they will have a clear conscious and feel peace. Also, talk to your child about how they feel when someone has been dishonest TO THEM. The conversation can then show that when someone is dishonest to you it doesn’t feel good and we would never want to make another person feel that way. I believe it is beneficial to have then recognize the feeling on BOTH sides.
With your children, make a “safe place” where kids and parents can go to talk. Find a comfortable, private location either in your house, or outside. It could be under a shade tree in the yard, or on Mom’s bed, just make sure the location is known by each child and parent and that it does not change. When either one of you suggests you need to go to the safe place to talk, you know there might be hard things talked about but that there will only be understanding, kindness and love shown. Anger, yelling, criticism, blaming and punishments are not allowed in the “safe place”.
Avoid questions that make it easy for your children to lie. This was an inspiration to me when I first heard the idea. If you saw your child do something do not ask them if they did it. For example, don’t ask, “Did you spill the cereal all over the floor”, this question encourages a child to lie to stay out of trouble. Rather say, “Please clean up the spilled cereal”.
Another way to teach these concepts to your child is to read books that deal with honesty/dishonesty. Even older children can enjoy a picture book read aloud to them. See our list below for ideas.
Books that help teach honesty to children
Arthur’s Classroom Fib by Marc Brown – After hearing about the exciting summer vacations of his classmates, Arthur decides to write an embellished version of his own
Betty Bunny Didn’t Do It by Michael B. Kaplan – Louis finds a toy model airplane in the playground and takes it home, but soon his guilt over taking something that is not his overpowers his love for toy airplanes.
Jamaica’s Find by Juanita Havill – A little girl finds a stuffed dog in the park and decides to take it home.
Princess Kim and the Lie that Grew by Maryann Cocca-Leffler – After new girl Kim tells her classmates she is from a royal family, her lie grows and grows
Princess Kim and too much truth –By Maryann Cocca-Leffler -Young Kim discovers that there is a difference between being honest and always speaking the truth.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf – An Aesop’s Fable retold by B.G. Hennessy – A boy tending sheep on a lonely mountainside thinks it a fine joke to cry “wolf” and watch the people come running–and then one day a wolf is really there, but no one answers his call.
The Berenstain Bears and the Truth by Stan Berestain – Brother and Sister Bear learn how important it is to tell the truth after they accidentally break Mama Bear’s most favorite lamp.
The Empty Pot by Demi – When Ping admits that he is the only child in China unable to grow a flower from the seeds distributed by the Emperor, he is rewarded for his honesty.
Zip, Zip Homework by Nancy Poydar- Violet has a great new backpack with wheels and zippers, but when the many pockets distract and cause her to misplace her homework she tells a lie to cover it up, so the teacher gives her an even harder assignment.
Big Whopper by Patricia Reilly Giff – When Destiny Washington cannot think of a discovery during Discovery Week at school, she makes up a story, but finds that she cannot keep on pretending it is true
Fancy Nancy and the Too Loose Tooth by Jane O’Connor – Nancy is about to lose her first tooth, but if she can prevent it from falling out until she arrives at school she will get a special necklace from the nurse.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle Farm, story 1, The Not Truthful Cure by Betty McDonald- Mrs Piggle-Wiggle puts Fetlock to work on her farm and helps him realize that he does not have to lie to be accepted by friends.
Non-Fiction for Children
Honesty by Kathryn Kyle – Easy-to-read scenarios, such as telling a store clerk that you received too much change or telling your mother you fed your broccoli to the dog, provide lessons in honesty.
Honest! By Kelly Dounda – This book discusses the importance of honesty, using examples of people who display this characteristic in different situations and including a story about a boy named James who broke a window.
If you would like to read more about activities to teach your child honesty, visit:
When Do Children Know What a Lie Is? -I recommend the first five paragraphs, but not the comments.