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3 Tips to encourage honesty in kids


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Zrinka Peters - published on 03/15/20

These parenting strategies can help kids be honest.

At some point, each of my kids has lied to me in one form or another. It may have been a little white lie — “I didn’t hit him, I just pushed him hard!” or it may have been a boldfaced, shameless lie — “I didn’t eat the candy!” (as the pile of candy wrappers hidden under her bed are uncovered).

Researchers tell us that preschoolers start to tell lies as early as 2- 4 years old. Is this supporting evidence for the doctrine of Original Sin? Maybe, but regardless of their inclination to dishonesty, I want my children to learn the value of honesty. Honesty is important not only in order to build healthy, trusting relationships, but it’s an essential part of living a Christian life. So, what can we do to help our kids overcome the temptation to lie? Thankfully, there are easy steps parents can take.

1Praise effort, not ability

We are all proud parents, I know. I’ve told my own children something to the effect of “You’re really smart!” many times. While there’s nothing wrong with praising good work — “You got an A on your spelling test! Fantastic!” — continually telling kids that they’re smart, gifted, or the best spellers can be counterproductive.

Research shows that  ability-based praise can actually lead to dishonesty by putting pressure on kids to live up to the label we’ve tagged them with. Instead of praising a child’s ability, we can instead praise effort, by saying something like “I noticed you kept working hard on that science project even when it got really tricky. Good work!”

2Don’t overuse rewards

Parents — myself included — often use rewards to motivate kids to do things that are hard or unpleasant for them to do, like cleaning their room or spending extra time on math facts. And that can be a very useful tool in the Parent Toolbox to be sure. Kids can be motivated to work hard by the knowledge that a treat awaits them if they get the job done.

But the use of rewards can have a downside, too. If a child is doing something that they already have some interest in – say, working on a challenging puzzle or homework assignment – offering a reward to give them further incentive can be counterproductive. It can actually decrease his or her internal motivation and curiosity, leading them to work only for the reward. 

3Teach and model honesty

One study of over 200 children who were presented with various scenarios involving lying found that the kids were more likely (than a control group) to tell the truth themselves if they witnessed the researcher either having a positive experience after telling the truth, or a negative experience after lying. Researchers also found they could influence the children to tell the truth by reading stories to them that demonstrate the consequences of lying.

Kids are taught by witnessing our own truthfulness, and our attitudes about honesty. If my daughter sees me apologize when I break or damage something, and if I praise her for telling the truth even when it’s hard, she’ll be more likely to make honesty a habit herself.

Read more:
Honesty is the best policy, we say, but is that always the case?


Read more:
Is it ever okay to lie to your children?

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