Parenting with a PhD: Teaching Honesty

By Kristen Berthiaume:

Your Kid’s Pants Are On Fire!

Chances are, your kid’s a liar – or has been. Most kids go through a lying phase at some point. Before age three, many kids lie because reality and fantasy are already all jumbled up in their cute little brains. By age four, kids may lie for a number of different reasons – often because they realize it keeps them out of trouble and might get for them things they want. In some cases, lying continues into adolescence and adulthood because it can feel easier to invent reality than have to face consequences for poor decisions head on. Fear not – there are things you can do to raise a more honest kid and it’s super easy to do! (O.K. – that last part was a lie. Sorry). Here are some ideas for creating a culture of honesty in your home:

Start early. From the second you find out you’re going to be a parent, you start forming trust with your child. When you respond to an infant’s cries, when you’re consistently present, when you follow through on something you’ve said – these are all behaviors that build trust. Even though your one-year-old may not understand the word “trust” – he can start to grasp its meaning if you use phrases like, “I’ll give your blankie back once I get your pajamas on – You can trust me,” assuming you make a point to give his blankie back once the p.j,’s are on. Building a trusting relationship with your child comes down to a very simple idea: Do what you say you’re going to do. When you’re successful with this, the message that trust is a crucial element for family relationships will come through.

Teaching your child what honesty is. The next step is to convey to your child that you expect him to be trustworthy. With younger kids, it’s best to avoid using the word “lie” because often the intention is not to purposely deceive you. Instead, little ones often say what they wish was the truth or what they think the adult they’re speaking to wants to hear rather than what actually happened. You’re likely to get further in your understanding if you ask a question like this: “Is this what really happened or what you wish was true?” You can help your child learn the difference between truth and fiction by playing games like this: Act something out then make a statement. For example, sit down and then say, “I’m standing on my head.” Now, ask your child to indicate if the statement is true and praise her for correct answers. Get more complicated by doing something objectionable (spilling your water) and then saying: “You spilled the water: true or not true?” You can also try this game using facts your child already knows. Kids learn easily from stories so look for themes of dishonesty and use it as a jumping off place for discussing why it’s important to tell the truth. Some options: “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (an Aesop fable), Franklin Fibs (Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark, 1992), The Berenstain Bears and the Truth (Stan and Jan Berenstain, 1983), and “The Empty Pot” (Demi, 1990).

Set your child up to tell the truth. One of the biggest mistakes parents make when trying to teach honesty is forcing the child to choose between a lie versus the truth. When you threaten your child with negative consequences, particularly if they’re overly harsh, he’ll feel cornered and desperate to tell you anything that will get him out of trouble. For example, if a father says to his daughter, “If you played with my cell phone after I told you not to, you’ll be grounded for a week!” the child is pretty unlikely to come clean about the behavior. Ultimately, she’ll probably be punished for both playing with the phone and for lying about it. In this situation, the father has set the child up to tell a lie by threatening her with a pretty aversive punishment for the problematic behavior. If, instead, the father said: “I asked you not to play with my cell phone but I see that it has been moved. I think you played with it and feel nervous about telling me that,” the child will realize that her father already knows what happened and that he’s ready to address it. Calmly. In this case, she’s much more likely to admit to the behavior. She may even feel relieved that her dad already knows what she did and that she doesn’t need to come up with a story to explain the phone’s sudden ability to mobilize. The second scenario doesn’t mean there’s no consequence for the behavior but it does make truth-telling easier and more likely. When you set your child up to tell the truth and then she does, you can praise her for doing so, making the behavior more likely in the future. Further, when you respond calmly and rationally to her admission, you’re reminding her that she can trust you with information – even if it’s not information you’re going to like. She knows that your reaction will be measured and not overly harsh or frightening. Because, honestly, if she can’t trust you to react calmly to news that she played with your phone without permission, how can she expect you to handle more serious information like that a friend is cutting herself or that she’s gotten into some kind of legal trouble? A phrase that will set your child up for truth-telling throughout her life might go something like this: “I may not like what you have to tell me and there might be a consequence, but I’ll respect you for telling the truth and will do my best to help.” Consider writing down a similar phrase in your own words to use when you need it.

Walk the walk. You’re not going to love this but one key way to teach honesty is to be honest. Sometimes this requires admitting at check-in that your son was late to school because you were too engrossed in Pinterest (I’ll admit – this has so happened to me). It means no: “Let’s keep this purchase secret from Daddy” or “Don’t tell your piano teacher you didn’t practice all week.” These kinds of little white lies may tempt you on a daily basis and probably don’t cause all that much trouble in the long run. But, children are literal little creatures and, in their minds, a lie’s a lie. It’s a slippery slope from you saying you have a headache to get out of helping at T-ball to your son blaming the broken remote control on his 1-month-old sister. This doesn’t mean you can’t teach your kids to have tact, even at an early age. As my grandfather used to say: “You don’t have to tell all you know.” Refraining from making every comment that pops into your head is different from lying and is an important social skill: one I’ll address in a future column.

The most important reason to promote a culture of honesty in your home isn’t to help you identify who painted the bedroom door with watercolors (my daughter) or who decorated the bathroom with an entire roll of toilet paper (my son). The ultimate goal is to ensure that your children will tell you the truth when it really matters. Because, one day, your child will be faced with a significant problem that he isn’t sure how to handle on his own. The way you handle the small issues today will be a major factor in determining whether you get a chance to help with the big ones. As anyone who’s ever told a tiny little lie for social reasons (or a huge whopper for whatever reason) knows, it takes courage to tell the truth, especially when there are likely to be consequences. The natural instinct is to save face, save your hide, save yourself. Your mission as a parent is to teach your child to be brave enough to tell the truth. But, you also have to demonstrate that he can trust you enough to hear it. Create a culture of trust and honesty in your family. Mean what you say. Do what you say. Expect the same of your kids. Cut them some slack when they fall short.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates ( She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her five-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

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