An Age-by-Age Guide to Teaching Kids About Honesty

All children lie, but it's important to teach them the value of honesty. Here's how to encourage your kid to tell the truth, from preschool to elementary school.

child lying to parent
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It's common for children to tell fibs. In fact, research shows that children as young as 24 months begin to lie. Interestingly, the frequency of dishonesty increases as their cognitive skills develop. "All kids lie occasionally," says clinical psychologist Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center. "In fact, it's a normal part of their development."

This doesn't mean, however, that you should ignore the behavior. "Parents must teach honesty," says Joseph Di Prisco, Ph.D., co-author of Right From Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child. "When you catch your child in a lie, look at it as an opportunity to talk about why it's important to be truthful."

To teach honesty, it helps to understand why kids lie and how those reasons change as they get older. Our guide gives you the best strategies to handle lying and deception at every stage and smart ways to teach your child the value of honesty.

When Toddlers and Preschoolers Lie

For the littlest kids, lying is not entirely intentional. "Preschoolers are too young to understand exactly what a lie is," says Dr. Gallagher. "They're not purposely distorting the truth. They love to exaggerate and make up tall tales, but these stories are expressions of their rich imagination, not lies." Additionally, 3- and 4-year-olds have a difficult time distinguishing between wishful thinking and reality.

"Developmentally, they aren't mature enough to realize that something isn't true just because they want it to be," says Dr. Gallagher. That's why your preschooler can sit with an empty glass in their hand, milk trickling onto their lap, and tell you that a monster spilled it. What they really mean is that they wish they hadn't been the one to spill the milk because they can see that you're upset.

What to do

First, don't overreact. "Never call a child a liar at any age," says Jane Kostelc, a child-development specialist with Parents as Teachers, a St. Louis-based parent education organization.

If you act angry, you'll only put them on the defensive and make it more likely that they'll continue to lie to avoid blame. Instead, focus on what happened. Say calmly, "I see the milk spilled," then suggest a way to fix the problem: "Let's go get some paper towels and clean this up together."

If your child is spinning a wild tale, challenge them in a playful way, suggests behavioral scientist Wendy Gamble, Ph.D., associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. You might ask, "Is this a real or a pretend story?"

Most likely, your child will admit they've made it up and the two of you can laugh about it together. Try reading Hippo Owns Up, by Sue Graves, which teaches kids to admit to their mistakes by being honest.

When 5- to 7-Year-Olds Lie

Kids in their early school years often lie to escape responsibility or punishment. But they may also lie to get what they want (a later bedtime or permission to watch a must-see TV show), or because they're afraid of letting you down, says Dr. Di Prisco.

If your child thinks that you'll be upset that they didn't learn their spelling words, they might lie about how they did on the quiz that day. And as friends become more important, a child who feels left out may fib to enhance their reputation.

What to do

Try to figure out your child's motivation for lying. Start by considering how you respond to their slip-ups. Are your expectations too high or is your discipline style too harsh? Your child may feel anxious and lie to avoid blame and punishment.

Let them know that you understand they feel scared/embarrassed/ashamed when they've done something wrong. Then, tell them that everyone (even you!) makes mistakes and that you still love them, no matter what they've done.

Also explain that you prefer they tell you the truth, even if it's unpleasant. If your kid comes home with a toy you've never seen and you know they swiped it during a playdate, don't force them to confess. Instead, make a neutral comment like, "I see that you've brought home Billy's mitt," and talk about how it's not nice to take things without permission. Then, focus on a solution: They can call Billy, apologize, and arrange to return it.

"Think of yourself as a teacher, not a police officer," says Kostelc. Don't enforce a punishment that far exceeds the misdeed. If your child lied about a routine matter like turning off the TV when they didn't, a disapproving look plus a reminder that you expect them to tell the truth get your message across.

When 8-Year-Olds (and Older Kids) Lie

At this age, your child's lies are more deliberate. They may purposely "forget" to tell you something or omit certain details. (Technically, they don't have any homework, but they have an upcoming math quiz.)

Also, friends and social standing are really important to your child, so don't be surprised if they lie to impress their peers. As kids get older, they also sometimes stretch the truth to protect their privacy and stake out their independence.

What to do

"Don't try to trap your child in a lie or ask questions when you already know the answers," says Kostelc. But make it clear when you know they're not being truthful. You might say, "That doesn't sound like the truth to me. Want to think for a minute and start over?" And skip the lectures. They'll be more willing to come clean if you use a calm voice—no sarcasm necessary. When they admit the truth, acknowledge it and move on.

If you overhear your kid talking to friends about something that never happened or never will (like an imaginary trip to the Super Bowl), don't embarrass them in front of their pals. Let it go until you have a moment alone together. Explain that friends will like them for who they are—they don't have to lie to impress them. "Kids don't tolerate other kids' lies," says Dr. Di Prisco. "Her friends will call her on her fibs long before you do."

Finally, remember that your child is growing up and, within reason, has a right to privacy—and a right to make mistakes. If you pry or interrogate them about every phone call or e-mail, they may lie just to get you to back off. Most important, create a nurturing environment at home. If a child, whether they're 6 or 16, knows they can talk to you about anything, anytime, they're far less likely to lie.

Tips for Raising an Honest Kid

Whether your child is in preschool or elementary school, these tips can encourage honesty and truth-telling in the long run.

Set an example

Kids learn more from what we do than from what we tell them to do, so it's up to parents to set a good example for them. Instead of sweet-talking your way out of a parking ticket, admit your mistake and pay the fine. When your mother-in-law phones, don't duck the call by pretending you're out. You get the picture.

Share your feelings

Be honest about your emotions, too. If your child sees that you're sad or worried, don't tell them, "It's nothing; I'm fine." Kids need to know that it's unhealthy to stuff negative feelings inside and pretend everything's all right.

Nurture self-esteem. Confident kids are less likely to embellish the truth. Find ways to help your child feel good about themselves. Spend more one-on-one time with them, help them explore a new hobby, and cheer on their achievements.

Teach them about white lies

White lies are fine to an extent but don't expect preschoolers to understand that. "Young kids are very literal and quick to spot hypocrisy," says Dr. Richard Gallagher. "If you preach, 'This family never lies!' but then nudge a 4-year-old child to 'Tell Aunt Susie you love the gift,' he'll be confused. And he'll call you on it."

By 6 or 7, however, a child can grasp that sometimes fudging the truth can spare a person's feelings. But help your child find a way to be polite while still being honest. If they're less than thrilled about a present, they might say, "Thanks for thinking of me."

When to Call the Pediatrician

A fib now and again is no big deal, but if your child develops a habit of lying, it could signal a deeper problem. If you notice any of the following warning signs, consult your pediatrician, school counselor, or child psychologist:

  • A pattern of deceit at home, at school, and with friends
  • Doesn't own up to lies, take responsibility, or try to make amends
  • Other antisocial behaviors, such as stealing or bullying
  • No sadness or remorse when a lie is unmasked
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