A Guide to Educating Children About Honesty Based on Their Age

Navigating the challenges of parenting, our heartfelt guide to educating children about honesty aims to help you instill the importance of truthfulness in your preschooler or elementary-aged child, even though all children may lie at times.

It is typical for children to lie. In fact, research indicates that children begin to lie as early as 24 months. Intriguingly, the frequency of dishonesty rises as cognitive abilities grow. According to clinical psychologist Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center, all children occasionally lie. That is, in fact, a typical component of their development.

Nonetheless, this does not indicate that you should disregard the behavior. According to Joseph Di Prisco, Ph.D., co-author of Right From Wrong: Instilling a Feeling of Integrity in Your Child, “parents must teach honesty.” “When you catch your child lying, take advantage of the opportunity to talk to them about the value of telling the truth.”

To teach honesty, it is helpful to comprehend why children lie and how these reasons evolve as they age. Our guide provides you with the most effective solutions for addressing lying and deception at each developmental stage, as well as wise methods for teaching your child the importance of honesty.

When Preschoolers and Toddlers Lie

For the youngest children, lying is not always intentional. According to Dr. Gallagher, preschoolers are too young to comprehend exactly what lying is. “They do not intentionally twist the truth. They enjoy exaggerating and making up tall tales, yet these tales are merely reflections of their vivid imagination.” In addition, three- and four-year-olds have difficulty discriminating between fantasy and reality.

Dr. Gallagher states, “Developmentally, kids are not developed enough to recognize that something is not true simply because they want it to be.” Your preschooler can therefore sit with an empty glass in hand and milk dripping down their lap while claiming that a monster spilled it. While they can tell that you are upset, they truly mean that they wish they hadn’t been the one to spill the beans.

What to do:

First, avoid overreaction. Jane Kostelc, a child-development specialist with Parents as Teachers, a St. Louis-based parent education organization, advises, “Never call a child a liar at any age.”

If you demonstrate anger, you will simply put them on the defensive and increase the likelihood that they will continue to lie to avoid responsibility. Instead, concentrate on what occurred. Speak calmly, “I see that the milk has spilled,” and then suggest a solution: “Let’s get some paper towels and mop this up together.”

Behavioral scientist and associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Wendy Gamble, Ph.D., recommends posing a fun challenge to a child who is telling a tall tale. You may question, “Is this a true or fictional story?”

Your youngster will likely acknowledge they made it up, and you may both laugh about it together. Consider reading Sue Graves’s Hippo Owns Up, which teaches children to accept their faults by being truthful.

When Five- to Seven-Year-Olds Lie

Children in elementary school frequently lie to avoid responsibility or punishment. Dr. Di Prisco explains that they may also lie to acquire what they want (a later bedtime or permission to watch a must-see TV show) or out of fear of disappointing you.

If your child believes you would be unhappy if they don’t learn their spelling words, they may lie about how well they did on the spelling test that day. And when the importance of friends increases, a child who feels left out may lie to improve their reputation as friends become increasingly important.

What to do:

Determine your child’s motivations for lying. Consider first how you will react to their mistakes. Are your expectations too high, or is your method of discipline too severe? Your child may experience anxiety and lie to avoid blame and discipline.

Let them know you recognize the fear, embarrassment, and guilt they feel when they’ve done something wrong. Finally, assure them that everyone (including yourself!) makes mistakes and that you still love them regardless of their actions.

Furthermore, express that you prefer they tell you the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable that may be. If your child returns home with an item you’ve never seen and you suspect they stole it during a playdate, you should not compel them to confess. Instead, make a neutral remark such as, “I notice that you’ve brought Billy’s mitt home,” and discuss how taking things without permission is impolite. Then, they can phone Billy, apologize, and make arrangements to return the item.

Kostelc advises, “Think of yourself as a teacher, not a police officer.” Do not impose a punishment that is disproportionate to the offense. If your child is misled about completing a simple task, such as turning off the television, a disapproving glance and a reminder that you want them to speak the truth will convey your message.

When 8-Year-Olds (and Older Youngsters) Lie

Your child’s falsehoods are more purposeful at this age. They may “forget” to tell you something or intentionally withhold specific facts. (Technically, they have no homework, but they have a math quiz coming up.)

Also, friendships and social status are extremely important to your child, so don’t be surprised if they lie to impress their peers. As children age, they will occasionally embellish the truth to safeguard their privacy and assert their independence.

What to do:

Kostelc advises, “Don’t try to catch your child in a lie or ask questions to which you already know the answers.” But make it apparent when you realize someone is lying. You could say, “To me, that does not sound like the truth. Want to rethink your decision and begin again?” Also, avoid lectures. They will be more forthcoming if you use a calm tone of voice; sarcasm is unnecessary. When they acknowledge the truth, accept it and go on.

Do not embarrass your child in front of their friends if you overhear them discussing something that has never happened or will never happen, such as a trip to the Super Bowl. Put it aside until you have a minute alone. Explain that their friends will accept them for who they are; they do not need to pretend to gain their approval. Dr. Di Prisco states, “Children do not tolerate other children’s lying.” Her buddies will expose her lies much before you do.

Remember that your child is maturing and, within limits, has the right to privacy as well as the right to make mistakes. If you pry or question them about every phone conversation or email, they may lie to convince you to leave them alone. Providing a caring environment at home is a top priority. If a youngster, age 6 or 16, understands they can talk to you about anything at any time, they are significantly less likely to lie.

How to Raise an Honest Child

Whether your child is in preschool or primary school, these tips help support long-term honesty and truthfulness.

Set an example.

Parents must set a positive example for their children since children learn more from what we do than from what we say. Instead of trying to negotiate your way out of a parking ticket, you should accept responsibility and pay the cost. You should not pretend to be out of the house when your mother-in-law calls. You have the idea.

Express your emotions.

Be truthful about your emotions as well. If your youngster notices that you are upset or anxious, do not say, “It’s nothing; I’m OK.” Children must understand that it is bad to suppress negative emotions and act as if everything is well.

Cultivate self-esteem. Children that feel confident are less inclined to embellish the truth. Discover ideas to help your child have a positive self-image. Spend more one-on-one time with them, assist them in discovering a new passion, and applaud their accomplishments.

Introduce them to white lies.

White falsehoods are acceptable to some extent, but you cannot expect preschoolers to comprehend this. According to Dr. Richard Gallagher, young children are literal and fast to detect duplicity. “If you tell a 4-year-old child, “Tell Aunt Susie you appreciate the gift,” after preaching, “Our family never lies!” he will be puzzled. And he will confront you on it.”

By the age of six or seven, a child can understand that sometimes lying can spare someone’s feelings. Therefore, assist your youngster in finding a way to be courteous while remaining truthful. If they are not enthusiastic about a gift, they may remark, “Thank you for thinking of me.”

When to Contact Your Pediatrician

The occasional white lie is not causing concern, but if your child develops a practice of lying, it may indicate a deeper issue. Consult with a pediatrician, school counselor, or child psychologist if you observe any of the following warning signs:

  • A consistent pattern of dishonesty at home, in school, and with friends.
  • Does not admit to telling lies, accept blame, or attempt to make amends.
  • Other antisocial acts, including theft and bullying.
  • There is no regret or anguish when a falsehood is exposed.

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