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?”

Teaching Honesty to Kids from Very Young Through Adolescence

Using words that the child can understand, explain what honesty means in your family. Then continue to remind the child:

  • “This is the way we do things in our family.”
  • “We tell the truth.”
  • “We do not take what is not ours.”
  • “If we have done something dishonest, we own up to it.”
  • “We tell the truth even when it is hard to do.”
  • “When you tell the truth people will respect you, and you will feel better about yourself.”
  • “I might not like what you have to tell me, and there might be a consequence, but I will respect you for telling the truth.”

For example, little Emily, 5 years old, wanted to use the special hand-wipes that her mother had put in a basket. She wanted a lot of them. Her mother noticed that Emily had her hand under her t-shirt and had a sheepish look on her face. “What are you doing, Em’?” Mother asked. “Nothing.” “Em’ please let me see what you have.” Mother gently removes the hand-wipes from under the t-shirt. “Emily, you do not have to take these when I am not looking. You can tell me if you want to use these. I may allow you to have only one at a time, but in our family we do not take things without asking permission. That is part of being honest.” If an older child does something like this, it is worth considering a simple consequence such as putting the hand-wipes back and organizing the basket. Refrain from attacking the child’s character. The parent might also consider what might be the function of the dishonest behavior. One such possibility would be to act out something that is bothering the child.

Special Considerations for Adolescents

All kids test. Teens test and try your patience. They sneak out, sneak cigarettes, hang with the wrong crowd, experiment with drugs and alcohol and engage in many other ingenious behaviors that might make the parent think all the lessons on honesty (and every other virtue) have been lost. The key advice is not to “freak out.” Keep your concern in perspective and refrain from shaming. Have well thought out consequences that the child is aware of and adhere to them. Predictability and consistency will help instill the values you want to impart. Follow through is very important. If dishonesty and acting out become chronic, seek professional help, as this may be indicative of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

Related Articles:

Bette J. Freedson, LICSW, LCSW, CGP is the author of the "Relax and Learn Seminars: Skills For All Seasons,” a repertoire of workshops based on the principles of effective stress management. In her work Ms. Freedson emphasizes the power of the mind/body connection to improve decision-making, increase effective coping, reduce time wasted in conflict, boost morale and productivity at work, and create greater harmony in relationships. Ms. Freedson practices clinical social work at The Listening Place in Lynn, Massachusetts. Besides maintaining an additional private practice in South Berwick, Maine, Bette is Social Work consultant to Maine School Administrative District #35.