How to Raise Truthful Kids
Archie Modequillo (The Freeman) - August 17, 2019 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines —  Truthfulness is a virtue that parents most want to teach their children. But the truth is – all kids lie. The little ones are no different from grownups, who would lie for various reasons: to avoid getting into trouble, to avoid hurting other people’s feelings, to make themselves look better etc.

Perhaps lying is just part of the human survival instinct. It’s normal for people to try to avoid being in an awkward situation or being put in bad light. Everyone wants to be on the safe side, and to look good. 

But truthfulness is still a worthy human moral challenge. As the compulsion to tell a lie develops early – as young as 2½ for some kids – the effort towards truthfulness shall also start as early. And that effort is to be initiated by the parents.

It can, indeed, seem like a formidable task to convey to a preschooler the difference between the truth and the whoppers she tells about her day. Or teach an elementary school-aged child that it’s better to deny about having made a mistake. Or get a teen to be honest with his parents about where he was with his friends on Friday night.

Charity Ferreira, in an article at, gathers the advice of experts – researchers, child development specialists, and psychologists – on how to teach kids the value of honesty at every stage:

• Model honesty. If parents don’t want their kids to lie to them, then they shall not lie to their kids, and not let the kids hear them telling lies. It may be less effort to say, “I don’t have any money with me” than to explain to a child that she can’t have ice cream because she’s already had a sweet treat that day or because it’s too close to dinner. Over time, though, so-called “little white lies” teach the child that dishonesty is okay in some situations, and leaves them to interpret which situations these are. If parents want their kids to grow up with the belief that honesty is the best policy, the parents themselves must live by that credo, too.

• Don’t set them up. One way to deter lying by kids is simply by not inviting them to. When a parent sees her child with a juice-stained lip and an overturned bottle on the table, there’s no need to ask, “Did you spill this juice?”  It’s better to say, “Looks like you spilled some juice. Let’s clean it up together.” Or if it’s not certain which sibling broke the vase, the parent may go straight to the consequence. “We have a mess here. I’m asking you both to clean it up.” It’s to show the kids that there’s no positive consequence for denying responsibility.

• Tell positive stories. A has found that kids ages 3 to 7 who’ve been told a story that illustrates a positive consequence of honesty were much more likely to tell the truth than kids who heard a story that illustrates a negative consequence of lying. Kids need examples for how to behave in situations where lying might be easier, stories that show how to be honest. For older kids, talking about the honesty of the characters in the books they’re reading can provoke inspiring and instructive discussion.

• Ask for a promise. If parents need a straight answer about something they’re concerned about, such as an incident at school, asking their child to promise to tell the truth before asking them a question increases the chances that the child will. But this strategy is not a guarantee, and it should be used sparingly so that it doesn’t get worn out and lose its efficacy.

• Say truth-telling makes you happy. Young children, under the age of 8 or so, are very motivated to please authority figures. Telling kids that mom will be happy with them if they tell the truth increases the likelihood they’ll be straight with mom. A study has found that telling 9- to 11-year-olds that they would feel good about themselves if they told the truth decreased the chances they would tell a lie.

• Teach tact. Kids learn early – from their parents – how to lie for the sake of politeness or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. “Thanks, this book looks great,” instead of, “I already have this book!” or “I can’t play because I’m busy,” instead of “I don’t like playing with you!” Such “prosocial” lies shall be balanced with honesty. In the case of the book, this might mean saying it’s an author they like, or expressing appreciation for the thought that went into choosing it.

• Don’t reward the lie. When the child lies, there’s a reason – he’s seeking something. And if he gets it, that can reinforce lying as an effective strategy. For example, if parents notice that their younger child always fabricates a story about getting hurt at school as soon as an older sibling starts telling you about their day, it might be an attention-seeking behavior. Parents shall find ways to ignore the lie so it doesn’t get the reward, or let the child get what he’s wanting in some other way.

• Catch them being honest. Parents often catch their kids telling a lie, but to teach the little ones to value honesty, parents shall look for opportunities to acknowledge when the kids tell the truth, especially in situations where it might have been easier for the kids to lie.

• Discipline calmly. In environments where punishments are doled out harshly and arbitrarily, kids learn to lie earlier, and more skillfully. It doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t discipline. But in an atmosphere with a punitive, authoritarian approach to discipline, developing the ability to lie can be seen as a protective measure. The more explosive the parent gets, the more frightened the child gets, and the more likely he is to lie.

• Have a conversation, not give a lecture. The more open and conversational the relationship between parents and their teens, the more effective. That means more discussing and less lecturing. When clashes happen, parents shall wait for the situation to abate and approach their teenager calmly. That is always going to yield a more positive outcome.

• Set clear rules. It is said that 98 percent of teenagers worldwide lie to their parents. Parents shall set clear rules for cultivating an honest relationship with their teens – and being strict is okay. However, it’s essential that parents are also emotionally warm and open and accepting, so the teens don’t think they will be harshly and unjustly punished.

Give them space. Respecting teens’ natural desire for privacy can encourage more honesty. Parents shall not be intrusive, trying to get into the kids’ business more than they need to. For example, the parents need to know that their teen was safely at a friend’s house on Friday night; they don’t need to know what the teens talked about. Prying too deeply is asking for teens to push back by putting up barriers or lying.

Inculcating the value of truthfulness in children is a serious parental task. It is not easy, but it is necessary. It is teaching the kids to go in the right way.

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