Wondering what works for teaching kids to tell the truth?
These 11 tips will help you get to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, more of the time.
There’s good news and bad news about children and lying: which would you like to hear first?
Let’s go with the good news first! Lying actually requires advanced cognitive abilities and social skills that being honest doesn’t require. A child has to be able to identify the truth, make up an alternate reality, and convince someone else of it.
Now the bad news: It’s a developmental milestone. By their 4th birthday, all children will learn about lying. Some children lie even earlier.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of Nurture Shock (2009), shared some interesting research from Dr. Victoria Talwar of Montreal, Canada. Dr. Talwar is one of the world’s leading experts on children’s lying behavior.
Why Kids Lie
The most common reason children lie is to cover up a transgression or avoid punishment. “Punishment is a primary catalyst for lying, but as kids develop empathy and become more aware of social relations, they start to consider others when they lie… Lying also becomes a way to increase a child’s power and sense of control – by manipulating friends with teasing, by bragging to assert his status, and by learning that he can fool his parents,” write Bronson & Merryman.
Avoid 4 mistakes parents most often make when dealing with lying.
- You think you can tell when your child is lying. Dr. Talwar’s research shows that parents score just above chance in their ability to tell whether or not their own child is lying (teachers score just slightly higher, at 60%).
- You focus on the initial offense but don’t deal with the lie. Researchers report that parents rarely use lying as an opportunity to teach. In less than one percent of situations where a child does something wrong, then lies about it, do parents use the lie as an opportunity to teach about lying.
- You assume your child will grow out of it naturally. The research shows that kids don’t grow out of lying – they grow into it. 96% of children in the studies lied. The better a child can distinguish a lie from a truth, the more likely she is to lie given the chance.
- You increase the threat of punishment. The research shows that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they get better at lying, at an earlier age, to avoid getting caught.
Strategies That Reduce Lying
5. Extract a Promise. “I’m going to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?” This cuts down lying by 25% in Dr. Talwar’s “Peeking Games” studies, in which a child is asked not to peek at a toy when a researcher leaves the room. Cameras then record what happens, then the researcher returns, and last, asks the child whether or not he peeked. Given that 96% of the kids lied in the studies, this is a significant reduction!
6. Offer Immunity & Tell Them What You Want. “I won’t be upset with you. If you tell the truth, I will be really happy.” Young kids are lying to make you happy, to please you. When you offer immunity and a way to get into your good graces again, it disputes their thinking that you want to hear “good news”, instead of the truth.
7. Teach the value of honesty as much as the fact that lying is wrong. If honesty is a high value for you, let your child know. Be consistent and deal with lies directly. If you ignore lying when it comes up, you’re only teaching that it doesn’t matter.
Positive, respectful, encouraging relationships are the most important part of creating an environment in which kids feel safe to learn and make mistakes. Ideally, your kids know that you hold high standards for them – and that mistakes are treated as opportunities to learn. In supportive, encouraging environments, growth happens. Click here to download “11 Tips to Reduce Lying” as a PDF
Here are some strategies you can use with kids of any age.
8. Model honesty and integrity in your own life. Unfortunately, children often see adults lie, especially to protect someone else’s feelings or to avoid inconvenience. In the process, they learn that dishonesty is a way to avoid conflict. Over time, they get comfortable being less than honest, too.
Parents often lie to their children to avoid conflict or disappointment. Before you lie to your child, ask yourself, “What do I want my child to be able to count on me for in life?” Consider the impact lying will have on your ability to require honesty as the standard in your home, and the impact lying will have on your child’s trust in you over time.
9. Don’t ask “leading” questions or tempt children to lie. Avoid asking, “Did you clean up?” when you know your child didn’t. Better to say, “I notice you didn’t clean up. Please do it now.”
10. Use empathy. Say, “I know it can be scary (embarrassing, etc.) to admit when you’ve done something wrong.“ Empathy doesn’t condone, it’s just a way to foster connection and help a child feel understood.
In Positive Discipline A-Z (2009), authors Jane Nelsen & Lynn Lott suggest saying, “I want you to know it’s safe for you to tell me the truth. Let’s take a break from our conversation now. Later, come and find me when you’re ready to tell me what really happened.”
11. Instead of punishing, help your child explore the consequences of lying, and deal with the underlying problem. Find out what’s going on. Is your child lying because they lack knowledge or skills to resolve a problem?
For example, if your child has taken something that doesn’t belong to him, help your child return the item to its owner. Then, acknowledge your child for making amends and correcting his mistake. Acknowledge the courage it takes to tell the truth and admit when we’ve been dishonest.
Talk together and help him figure out how he might handle the situation differently next time. Brainstorm together:
Perhaps he would make a request to borrow the item.
He could ask you to buy it.
Together, you could come up with ways for him to earn money by helping with extra jobs around the house.
Let him know that it’s not unusual or bad for people to want things that others have, but that it’s wrong to take things that don’t belong to us. He needs to either ask permission to use the item in question, or figure out a way to get one of his own.
Talk about why lying is problematic. What happens when people don’t trust each other? What’s the impact? Has your child had experience with a friend who didn’t tell the truth? What happened? Did it cause her to wonder if her friend was being dishonest in other areas, too?
Help your child explore ways to get their needs met in an honest, constructive way.
Despite your best efforts, your kids may lie to you occasionally. Sometimes you’ll find out (you know what to do) – and sometimes you won’t.
Honesty Takes Time
In the end, we know it takes time for children to understand the moral implications of lying.
Bronson and Merryman conclude, “It isn’t until age eleven that the majority demonstrate an understanding of its harm to others; at that point, 48% say the problem with lying is that it destroys trust, and 22% say it carries guilt. Even then, a third still say the problem with lying is being punished.”
If you’re parenting a teen, don’t be surprised to find your teen going “underground” in an effort to avoid confrontation, especially if they think you’ll judge them or tighten the controls. Teens are still trying to figure out what they think about things, and may not be ready to share honestly with anyone – especially parents.
Be someone who can hear the truth. Acknowledge your teen’s feelings, whether or not you agree. Do affirm the qualities and values you hold most important, and find opportunities to share your thinking during the “little” moments in life. Make honesty your standard AND be the safe person who accepts your teen for who she really is, while encouraging growth.
Lynn Lott, co-author of Positive Discipline for Teenagers, Empowering Your Teen and Yourself Through Kind and Firm Parenting, says this, “I trust you to be exactly who you are.” This means that as a parent, you know who your child is, and you know what they are working on. You take that into account and deal with reality. You make space for your child to be who they are – without giving up or giving in.
Teaching the value of honesty is a process, not a one -time conversation.
- Acknowledge your child when she tells the truth.
- Help her find examples of honesty and its importance in daily life, in books, and in movies.
- Talk about the importance of being honest – and being honest with oneself, too.
- Above all, be an example of someone who tells the truth, and is willing to hear the truth.
I hope these tips will help you create a relationship where your kids are more likely to tell the truth.
I’d love to know what your parents (or another important adult in your life) did to help you learn the importance of honesty. Please share in the comments.
Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. “Why Kids Lie.” NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. New York: Twelve, 2009. 71-92. Print.
Nelsen, Jane, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen. Glenn. Positive Discipline A-Z: 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems. New York: Three Rivers, 2007. Print.
© 2015 Kimberly Gonsalves www.parenting4thelongrun.com