Daughter: I think maybe it was me.
If your child has ever lied to you, take heart: it turns out that most kids have a strong tendency to lie when they transgress rules or expectations. According to research on the psychology of honesty, “children’s lie-telling abilities emerge as early as three years of age and develop rapidly.”
Despite this tendency, children under the age of eight are not particularly skilled at lying. Think of the child who denies coloring on the wall while holding the offending marker in her hand!
This gives parents a terrific opening to help kids begin to work through and resist these natural impulses. Rather than become upset when your young child lies — because children will! — see these moments as opportunities to help them develop the habit of honesty. Here’s how:
- Explain What It Means to “Tell the Truth“: Young children are still figuring out the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary. In their mind, if they don’t tell you they broke something, you won’t know and the problem will magically disappear. Begin to teach them the concepts of honesty and truth through simple, supportive conversations. It might sound like this:
- “You took your brother’s toy and now he’s crying? Thank you for telling me that! You told the truth. Now, what can you do to help him feel better?”
- “In this family, if someone breaks something or makes a big mess, they say, ‘I did it.’ That’s telling the truth. And then we clean it up together!”
- Reframe Honesty as an Act of Courage: Let children know that telling the truth is both important and brave. Lying is often a response to fear or anxiety: fear of disappointing parents and teachers, fear of consequences, fear of being embarrassed. Telling the truth often takes courage. When kids are honest, despite their anxiety, they are choosing to be brave — and kids want to see themselves as honest and brave! As one study notes, children are “highly motivated to think of themselves as ‘good'” and they want to “shape their self-image by behaving in ways that reflect the kind of person they want to be.”
- Honor Truthfulness: Reminding kids that it’s important to tell the truth before you ask them about a situation increases the chance that they will be honest. When your child tells you the truth — particularly if it was hard for them to do so — remember to acknowledge their honesty. Explain that when we make a mistake, the first step to fixing the situation is to be honest about what happened. Let them know that you are always here to help them; what’s most important is that they tell you to truth so that you can solve the problem together.
- Read Inspiring Stories Together: Read aloud is a great way to talk to kids about character traits such as honesty and courage — but keep in mind that kids are more inspired by positive examples than by negative ones. One study found that children who heard a story about the benefits of being honest were more likely to tell the truth than those who heard a story about the consequences of lying. Here are three books that might inspire good conversation in your family:
When we help children develop the habit of honesty, we give them a gift that will have lifelong ripple effects. After all, trustworthiness is the foundation of all strong relationships. As Fred Rogers reminded us, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.”