Raising Honest Kids: 5 Tips

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In a world where academic cheating is rampant, plagiarism is a major concern, and childhood lying can lead to real danger, all parents wish that they could teach their kids to live with honesty and integrity. When your 2-year-old lies about spilling the juice or your 8-year-old is caught cheating on a test, you may be shocked. Take heart — you haven’t done anything wrong. Read on to learn why lying is normal for kids, how you should react to dishonesty, and how to raise honest kids.

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By Keren Perles

In a world where academic cheating is rampant, plagiarism is a major concern, and childhood lying can lead to real danger, all parents wish that they could teach their kids to live with honesty and integrity. When your 2-year-old lies about spilling the juice or your 8-year-old is caught cheating on a test, you may be shocked. Take heart — you haven’t done anything wrong. Read on to learn why lying is normal, how you should react to dishonesty, and how to make honesty the default setting in your home.

Model Honesty

Children’s main source of knowledge on the topic of honesty is you. No, not your lectures or your punishments. It’s how you embody honesty that really counts.

Sure, deep down you know this. But take a long look at yourself and think about whether you’re really modeling honesty and self-control. “Children watch what we do in our lives more than what we say, so if you want honesty with them, you better practice it yourself,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Joel Haber.

Do you lie about your child’s age in order to get him into an amusement park at a cheaper rate? Do you tell your child to tell a caller on the phone that you’re not home, just because you’re too busy to deal with the call right then? If so, your child will learn that while you preach honesty, you don’t truly value it.

Praise Honesty

Another way to show that you value honesty is to praise and reward children for telling the truth and acting with integrity. Most important, you need to show your children that you value honesty over winning. You may not realize that you are valuing winning over truthfulness when you overpraise achievements far more than acts of integrity. But if your child tells you the truth about disobeying or about a low test grade, the way that you react will pave the way for your child’s understanding of honesty.

So what do you do when your child misbehaves and then tells you the truth? “This is a great example of teaching your kids how to deal with normal behavior,” says Haber. Instead of giving a harsh punishment, which just teaches a child that lying is the only way to get out of negative consequences, talk with your child about the behavior and brainstorm together to come up with an appropriate solution. For example, your child might write a note of apology for a misbehavior or come up with a study plan for the next test. And remember to emphasize to your child how proud you are that he told you the truth about what happened.

Don’t Overreact

“Remind yourself that when children lie, it is not a sign of sociopathy, criminal behavior, or moral ineptitude,” says Haber. Instead, it’s a sign that they’re just trying to get out of trouble, get what they want, or show their independence. All of these desires are normal ones in healthy children — and adults, for that matter. So when your child tells an obvious lie or you find out about his dishonesty, make sure that you stay calm and think about why he did it before responding.

Determine the Motive

Up to age 4 or so, children’s lies cannot really be viewed as true dishonesty. Their falsehoods are instead an attempt to revise the situation. For example, your child may know that grabbing a toy from a sibling was wrong, and therefore deny it. The child isn’t intentionally trying to trick anyone — except for himself — about what actually happened. These early lies are actually signs of maturity.

After age 4 or 5, however, children may lie in order to receive a reward, to avoid punishment, to avoid a parent’s anger, to gain an advantage, or to improve their own self-esteem. They may also lie to protect their own privacy, or that of a friend. Finding this motive can help you to have a sit-down discussion with your child about honesty and its importance. “Use it as an opportunity for learning what you want from them in terms of your values,” Haber says.

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Give Appropriate Consequences

Giving harsh consequences for lying may not necessarily teach your child anything. Instead, make the punishment fit the crime. For example, if you catch your child copying someone else’s answers on a homework assignment, have your child write to his teacher explaining what he did and why he won’t do it again. If your child lies about having broken a window, help the child make amends for both the broken window and the broken trust caused by the lie.

Although you can’t singlehandedly force your child to tell the truth, you can emphasize to your child the importance of honesty through both your actions and your words. And in today’s world, that’s the primary way parents can fight dishonesty and get children on the path of integrity.

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