Cincinnati Family Magazine

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June 19, 2024

The Truth About Honesty

Learn to deal with lying in a constructive way.



You expect your children to wet the bed, spill their milk and fight with their siblings. It’s all just part of growing up. But the first time your innocent toddler looks up at you with that sweet face and those tender eyes to tell you a big fat lie, it can be a real shock to the system.

While there’s something about lying that really gets under the skin of most parents, realize that dishonesty in all of its forms – denial, cheating, boasting and telling outrageous whoppers – are all normal behaviors that every kid will try at some point. By reacting appropriately and setting an impeccable moral example for your children, you can create a parent/child relationship built on trust.

Little Liars

It’s no surprise that most kids begin telling fibs around age 3. Preschoolers spend lots of time pretending and living in their own fantasy worlds for large stretches of the day, and it’s an age that coincides with negative consequences for poor behavior in the form of time outs and lost privileges.

Avoiding punishment by blaming an invisible monster or pretending they weren’t involved at all (despite the often overwhelming and hilarious evidence to the contrary), are typical toddler forays into dishonesty.

Nationally renowned educator Michele Borba, author of 19 parenting books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing (Jossey-Bass, $16.95) calls this behavior “wishful thinking” and encourages parents to remember that “a 3-year-old’s brain doesn’t work the same way yours does.”

Preschoolers are still trying to make sense of the world and are inundated with images of talking trains, magical princesses and people with supernatural powers on TV and in books. While they definitely know right from wrong and can understand the concept of truth and dishonesty, the line between reality and fantasy is still pretty fuzzy.

“The biggest reason why kids won’t admit wrongdoing is because they wish someone else did,” Borba explains. So rather than haranguing the child about the lie, try asking, “Do you wish that had happened?” instead. When he comes clean, give your munchkin a big smile and a warm hug for telling the truth, then calmly help him make the situation right by cleaning up the mess or apologizing to his sister for that “accidental-on-purpose” pinch on the leg.

Avoid Setting Traps

You’ve been pulled over for speeding. The cop stands at your window and inquires, “Did you know you were going 85 in a 45 mile per hour zone?” Has anyone in the history of the world ever said, “I sure did!” Of course not. When given the opportunity, most people will feign ignorance in hopes of avoiding a ticket. Kids are no different, so don’t set them up for failure when they goof up.

If you see red marks on the wall and your child standing nearby with a crayon in his chubby little fist, don’t ask the obvious, “Did you draw on the wall?” That’s just inviting the inevitable denial. Just say, “This is naughty. You know better. We only use crayons on paper. No crayons for you today. Now please help me clean this up.” You’ve avoided making a bad situation much worse by setting a lying trap for your budding muralist.

He Who Boasts the Most

Older kids need to be told over and over that you take more pride in their upstanding character than in any of their academic or athletic accomplishments. While tweens and teens still bend the truth to get out of trouble, chances are they’re telling a lot more whoppers at school in order to fit in and gain social status. Boys will brag about how fast they can run or make up stories about a fictitious uncle in the NFL. Girls will exaggerate about how much money their clothes cost or invent their very own horse that conveniently lives out of sight at Grandma’s farm.

If you overhear your child boasting to friends, resist the urge to call her out in front of peers. It will only embarrass her. Instead, have a frank discussion about the perils of spinning tall tales. Remind your child that if something isn’t true, it’s a lie, and that integrity is far more important than purses, football or horses. You might also point out that true friends will like them for who they really are, not who they pretend to be.

Who’s Being Cheated?

A 1999 educational study revealed that 70 percent of American high school seniors admitted to cheating on at least one test. Borba says, “Parenting has become a competitive sport, so even little kids feel the pressure and cheat on spelling tests.” In fact, cheating has become so rampant that many kids don’t realize that it’s a form of dishonesty and truly don’t understand how self destructive it can be.

Copying someone else’s answers may result in a higher grade, but it masks the difficulty a student may be having understanding the material and will only lead to them falling further behind thereby increasing the need to cheat again and again. Keep an open dialogue with your students, of all ages, so they know that they can come to you for help if they’re feeling overwhelmed in class.

The urge to please parents and teachers is often the motivating factor in cheating, so parents should frequently tell kids how much value they place on effort versus the final grade. Let your kids know that there’s more pride in a “hard C” than an “easy A,” meaning that working your tail off in a tough class like chemistry and only pulling down a C is a lot more respectable than bringing home an A in an easier topic. Remind them that cheating is no different than stealing – it’s stealing answers and ideas – and it’s also the fastest way to lose a potential scholarship or a spot at a prestigious university.


Set an Honest Example

“The best way to teach morality is by example,” says Borba. How can you expect your kids to tell the truth if you lie about their age to get a cheaper price on movie tickets or send a sick note to school when you really left early for vacation? Can a teenager be expected to observe the speed limit when his dad regularly speeds? If you allow your toddler to take one gummy bear out of the candy bin at the grocery store, how can you scold her for sneaking a cookie from the pantry?

The sad fact is that parents are often the ones who teach kids to lie in the first place. “Tell Aunt Mildred how much you loved the squid casserole she made.” Sound familiar? How about this one: “Don’t tell Daddy how much your new jeans cost; he’ll have a fit.” If you have a chronic liar on your hands, you may want to take a personal inventory of your own behavior.

The Moral of the Story

You can bust a kid for lying again and again, but unless you are clear and consistent about your family’s values and the importance you place on integrity, simply catching lies won’t matter much. Children as young as 3 can understand something as simple as “Lying makes me sad. We tell the truth in our family. It makes me proud when you tell the truth.” And don’t forget… praise honesty as often as possible. Deep down your kids want to tell you the truth, so give them every reason to do so. It’s the best policy after all!

Deborah Bohn is a mom and local freelance writer based in Franklin.


Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing
By Michelle Borba
(Jossey-Bass; $16.95)

10-Minute Life Lessons for Kids: 52 Fun and Simple Games and Activities to Teach Your Child Honesty, Trust, Love, and Other Important Values
By Jamie C. Miller
(Harper; $11.95)

Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues
By Thomas Lickona
(Touchstone; $15)

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