The truth about raising honest kids, age by age
Published: December 23, 2022
By: Malia Jacobson
Today’s parents want to raise trustworthy kids, even more than they want to raise kids who are hardworking, compassionate, or financially savvy. In a recent poll by Pew Research Center, honesty tops the list of values parents want their kids to embody as adults, outranking traits like compassion, ambition and financial responsibility. But raising honest children isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In fact, teaching children about telling the truth can get morally murky, since parents often lie to their children — even parents who instruct their children to always be honest, according to a study published in the Journal of Moral Education. Ready to set the record straight? Here’s the truth about raising honest kids, age by age.
EARLY YEARS 1-5
No shame: While children may slip into an occasional untruth as soon as they can string together a sentence, these (usually unintentional) utterances aren’t really lies. Around age 3, children can begin to tell actual lies or intentional falsehoods, says Kate Paquin, a parenting educator and family coach. These early lies are usually innocent and experimental, she notes — a child may take three cookies but say they only took two or claim that they didn’t steal a sibling’s favorite toy despite their sister’s shrieks.
“Parents can become very alarmed by these lies, but it seems like a child never lied before, and suddenly they’re lying quite a bit,” says Paquin. But caregivers should remember that toddlers tell small lies to test boundaries. To discourage dishonesty and reinforce positive habits, Paquin recommends acknowledging the lie simply and without shame: “I know you took three cookies and it’s OK if you want three instead of two. Next time please tell me the truth.”
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Red handed: Catching a toddler with her hand in the cookie jar is one thing, but shouldn’t older kids “know better?” How should caregivers react when they catch a school-age child in a lie? First, it’s helpful if parents share their own values and expectations around honesty so kids have no questions about where parents stand: “In our family, we tell the truth.” When parents learn that a child has lied, either to them, at school, or in another context, they should respond firmly, but without a lot of emotion or energy (that means no yelling), says child psychologist Kristen C. Wynns, Ph.D., author of The No Wimpy Parenting Handbook.
“If caregivers give attention to the lying behavior by having a strong reaction, they may inadvertently reinforce that behavior,” she notes. Does that mean letting kids off the hook, every time? Not necessarily. “Depending on the lie, parents may want to show grace, for example, ‘OK, next time we expect you to tell us the truth,’ or give a consequence,” Wynns says. If parents take the consequence route, enhance the teachable moment by matching the consequence to the “crime” in question: If a child lied about feeding the pets, have him do an extra pet-related chore for a few days, advises Wynns.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
Sweet little lies: Of course, we want our teenagers to be honest. But teaching honesty to teens can get tricky — especially when savvy teens catch parents telling fibs and “white lies.” What should a parent do when a teenager calls them out for a small untruth, like telling a relative that they’re not available for dinner when they really want to stay home? When a child confronts you about an untruth, start by ‘fessing up, says Wynns. “Own the lie. ‘Yes, I lied to Aunt Martha and I shouldn’t have done that. Next time I’ll be honest with her.’”
But don’t stop there — seize the opportunity to discuss the nuances of honesty and model the value of apologizing and asking for forgiveness, says Wynns. “If the lie was meant to spare someone’s feelings or navigate an awkward social situation, parents can explain that being honest sometimes conflicts with the ‘bigger picture’ of maintaining a relationship and how they weighed out the advantages and disadvantages of telling the (whole) truth.” Acknowledging the challenges of navigating the world with integrity — including your own slip-ups — fosters moral maturity as teens grow into trustworthy, honest adults.
Malia Jacobson is a health and family journalist, truthfully.