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Teaching Kids Honesty

By — National Association of Social Workers
Updated on May 1, 2014

Introduction

Honesty is a virtue and it can be taught to children. Teaching the value of honesty to children is part of the development of moral and emotional strength. The quality of honesty helps to develop character and solid self-esteem.  Here is what parents need to know about teaching honesty. 

Tips for Parents

Lessons about honesty are learned differentially, depending on the child’s age. If you start the teaching of honesty early on, you can continue to support this virtue, as your children get older. Explain to your child what honesty means at his/her developmental level. Use words that they can understand at their ages.

Teaching Honesty By Example

Teaching honesty by example is very effective. “Do-as-I-do” is a better motto than the proverbial, “Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do.” Be honest with children at a level that they can understand. When deciding what to tell a child about a given situation, take into account the child’s age and maturity, and to what extent it is in the child’s best interest to know whatever it is you are considering telling him. Talking about personal adult issues with a child does not necessarily teach honesty, but may raise anxiety levels instead. Teaching by example means that you conduct your own personal and business affairs in an honest and ethical manner. By doing so you will be demonstrating the self-respect that accompanies ethical behavior.

A "No-Shaming" Policy

Use a no-shaming policy when children mess up. Children will be more likely to revert to dishonest behaviors if they fear being shamed. Approval is a strong motivator. Non shaming disapproval can help to teach, but shame dissolves strength of character, and tends to elicit the behaviors you want to extinguish. Respond rather than overreact when children lie or dissemble. It is natural for children to test. Your response will teach them to be honest, or to hide. Do not demand (or expect) perfection. Keep consequences for transgressions equal to the “crime,” and always as consistent as possible. Short consequences work best. If dishonesty has become chronic at any age, consider the underlying root causes. The child may be acting out something that is troubling him. Seek help from a professional if appropriate. Social workers are trained to help in these situations.

Examples for All Ages

Teaching Honesty to Little Ones

A good way to teach moral development to small children is to use stories. You might look for books with stories about honesty or make one up. One idea is to create a little character that can become an alter ego for your child. I have used a rabbit named “Bumpy the Bunny.” Bumpy gets into all sorts of problems, some are caused by his/her not being honest.

Stories can demonstrate consequences for not being honest in a way that will grab the child’s interest and keep the story line close enough for the child to identify, and far enough removed to keep shame at bay. This is an effective method for helping a child to process an incident of dishonesty he or she has actually experienced. Depending on your “plotline” of the moment, you can ask questions such as:

  • “What could Bumpy the Bunny have done instead?”
  • “What do you think Bumpy felt when the other bunnies lied?”
  • “Do you think Bumpy felt good about herself when she lied to her mother?”
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