Teaching children about honesty happens best in small conversations throughout childhood. When children are three and four this is defining, “honesty means telling the truth, it means telling what really happened.” As they are older, include the importance of honesty in relationships, “being honest means we can trust each other.”
There are many ways to encourage honesty:
- Model honesty – When your neighbor gave you holiday cookies, and you threw them out because they tasted bad, avoid saying, “thanks for the cookies, they were great!” just say, “thanks for the cookies!”
- Highlight when people are honest – If the cashier gives you too much change, stop and correct the mistake. On the way out of the store, explain to your children how you were just being honest. Point out that you told the truth about the situation.
- Recognize honesty under pressure – The idea is to highlight when people are being honest, and this is especially true when the child is being honest in a difficult situation. Let’s say the child is playing with Grandpa’s antique train, and after several warnings to be careful the train breaks. If the child is honest in that situation, add to your recognition how difficult that must have been to be brave and be honest.
- Avoid asking questions you already know the answer to – Let’s say you’ve made a cake, and there are people coming over for dessert. You and the three-year-old are the only ones home and you say to the child, “don’t touch the cake.” You then leave the room, and a few minutes later re-enter. There is a swipe off the cake and chocolate frosting on child’s face and you ask, “did you touch the cake?” Likely the child will sheepishly reply, “no?” Unfortunately, you set up your child to lie. Rather than ask, it’s better to state, “I see cake on your face.”
- When you hear a lie, avoid asking more questions – When parents catch a lie, it is a common pattern for them to ask several more questions trying to have the child fess up. Unfortunately, at least for several turns, the parent and child are digging a deeper hole as the child tends to lie a few times to cover up. Rather than continuing to question, it’s better to stop and say, “this is what I heard, and this is what I know. Try again.”
- Less discipline when they are honest, more discipline when they lie – If the child is honesty about a behavior, there should be a very consistent pattern of less discipline when they are honest and more discipline when they lie. This can be difficult in the moment as many of the behaviors need discipline, just be sure they understand the balance.
- Practice honesty with hypotheticals – This is asking your child questions about situations that are set-up for honesty or dishonesty. For a five-year-old it might be asking, “what if you and a friend were the only two in the classroom, and your friend wanted you to take a candy off the teacher’s desk? What would you do?” Discuss a variety of answers and possible outcomes, highlight ones that encourage honesty.
- Read and discuss children’s books about honesty –
- Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big by Breathed
- I’m Telling the Truth: A First Look at Honesty by Thomas
- Sam Tells Stories by Robberecht
- Ruthie and the Not So Teeny Tiny Lie by Rankin
- Berenstain Bears and the Truth by Berenstains
- Telling the Truth: Learning about Honesty by Burch
- Be Honest and Tell the Truth by Meiners