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Now Is the Right Time!
Trust is an essential foundation for healthy relationships. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and understanding how to promote trust in your 5-year-old child, where they tell you and others the truth, is key.
Lying represents an important milestone in your child’s thinking as they learn that others have different beliefs and perspectives than their own. Experimenting with lying is a normal part of a child’s development. Experimenting with lying is how they come to understand their own perspective versus others’ and also how they test boundaries. Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about the rules of school and of family life. In order for your child to understand rules, they need to test them and, at times, even break them.
The key to many parenting challenges, like raising children who grow in their understanding of the value of truth telling, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below will prepare you to help your child learn more about your family values, how they relate to lying, and how you can grow and deepen your trusting relationship.
Whether it’s your five-year-old lying about eating their dinner when you can see they have been stashing peas in their napkin, your seven-year-old telling their teacher they did their homework but left it at home when they didn’t, or your ten-year-old telling a friend they dance ballet when they’ve never tried it, your child’s ability to tell the truth can become a regular challenge if you don’t create plans and strategies.
Today, in the short term, honesty can create
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment,
- trust in each other,
- a sense of wellbeing for a parent and child, and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in social awareness, perspective taking, empathy, and compassion;
- builds skills in self-control; and
- develops moral and consequential thinking and decision making.
Five Steps for Teaching Your Child About Honesty
This five-step process helps you teach your child honesty. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about honesty by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to honesty so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling related to lies and truth;
- can begin to formulate what it means to be in a trusting relationship;
- can think through and problem solve any temptations to lie they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies and taking responsibility for their own relationships);
- will have more motivation and courage to take responsibility for their actions; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Ask questions and listen carefully to your child’s responses since they will shape how you will talk about lying and honesty. Questions you could ask include:
- “Who do you trust and why?”
- “What’s important to you about honesty?”
- “When are you tempted to lie?”
- “What’s the worst thing that could happen if you tell the truth about a misbehavior?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Being honest about motivations, feelings, limitations, and choices can be tough for adults, so it’s no wonder children struggle to figure out when, how, and why honesty is important. Learning about developmental milestones related to honesty and moral development can help parents know how to help their child.1
- Five-year-olds have grand and vivid imaginations and can construct elaborate play themes. Because they are working hard to understand the rules of school, consistent rules and routines are necessary to help them feel successful. They are also working hard to control impulses and will certainly not always be able to self-manage. When they do break rules, they might lie to cover up and avoid the disappointment of teachers and parents. But, their lies are easy to spot since they are temporary and don’t hold up with multiple questions.
- Six-year-olds can be ambitious and thrive on encouragement. They can be highly competitive with peers, and that tendency can lead them into dishonesty. They are attempting to internalize their own social rules and control impulses.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may worry more when schedules are chaotic and routines change. They require reassurance from adults. They can become extremely loyal to one friend or claim a “best friend.” They may be more prone to misbehave when tired, hungry, or at the end of a long school day and then may be tempted to cover it up with a lie.
- Eight-year-olds’ interest and investment in friendships and peer approval elevate and become as important as the teacher’s approval. So, they may engage in spreading rumors behind another’s back, lying, or exaggerating their own interests and skills to impress peers. They are more resilient when they make mistakes and less likely to lie about them.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowds and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend to exclude others in order to feel included in a group and may lie to manipulate their social status.
- Ten-year-olds have an increased social awareness and are trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. There is much more of a give and take in friendships with listening, talking, and compromising. With their rising social awareness also comes a newfound worry about what peers are thinking of them (for example, “He’s staring at me. I think he doesn’t like me.”). They tend to be able to work through conflicts and resolve fairness issues with friends more rapidly. They are less likely to lie, and if they do, they’ll immediately feel guilty.
In addition to understanding the developmental milestones your child is going through, it can also be helpful to consider where your child is challenged with honesty. Reflect and ask yourself, “In what circumstances have I noticed my child lie?” If it involves several areas, write them down and think about how you might use one or several of the following teaching tools to help your child learn.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Model honesty. Modeling honesty could be sharing aloud what you are thinking when you are saying how you feel. For example, you could share the opposite of the truth first, and then, share what the truth for you really is. This shows your child the contrast and makes apparent your own internal debate. For example, “I am tempted to say that I feel just fine in response to your ‘How are you?’ But, the truth is that I am upset about a conversation I had at work and I can’t seem to get it off my mind.”
- Teach your child to take a breath before answering a question. This gives your child a moment to allow their thinking brain to catch up with their reactive/emotional brain and allows them the opportunity to share a more honest response.
- Help set your child up for success by asking the right questions. Instead of “Did you do this?” ask, “Tell me what happened?”
- Talk with your child about the impact of their lies on you. You could say, “I am sad that there is something about our relationship that isn’t safe enough that you feel you need to lie to me.”
- Catch your child telling you the truth, particularly when it is difficult for them. You can say, “I know it was hard to tell me the truth, and I appreciate you being honest.”
- Talk about trust and how it is built slowly but can be broken quickly. Help your child understand that lies today lead to a lack of trust that will then have a large impact on them tomorrow. For example, if you can’t trust their word about whether they got their homework done, you may not trust them about where they are going when they are older.
- Learn about your child’s moral development. In understanding how moral development emerges in children, Carol Gilligan proposed three stages called “The Stages of an Ethic of Care.”2 These three stages can help you understand and empathize with your child’s point of view and also help you set goals for guiding them forward.
- Every person’s worldview begins with a survival perspective focused only on themselves. This worldview (infancy through nine-years-old) assists young children in focusing on securing relationships and establishing their own supports for survival so that they can open their minds to other possibilities later in life. This focus on a secure attachment allows children to form healthy relationships and gives them the confidence to explore school and their world beyond home.
- In this worldview, rules are given by authorities, not questioned but obeyed, and taken literally. If they are disobeyed, there is punishment. But, if a person remains stuck in this survivalist worldview, it limits their growth and ability to demonstrate care for themselves and others. It also limits making decisions that take responsibility for one’s role in a larger community. As a person moves out of this phase, there is a questioning of authority, which is necessary to move from a sense of selfishness and survival to responsibility.
- In this phase of moral development, caring for others takes primacy. A core sense of responsibility is established. Awareness of others surrounding the individual and the impact they have on others becomes the focus. In this stage, self sacrifice is good. Individuals may care for others while ignoring their own needs. They may even do harm to themselves (perhaps inadvertently) in an effort to help others. In this stage, the individual becomes aware of the rules of the wider society and obeys them to avoid guilt.
- Moving out of this phase into the final phase, the individual moves from goodness to truth, from responsibility in order to gain approval to an internalized compass for not hurting self or others.
- Most people never evolve their worldview to this place, though this is the final stage. In this stage, the person’s thinking evolves to valuing nonviolence and making decisions, however complex the situation, relative to doing no harm to self or others. Though this kind of thinking and the actions that follow are rare, it certainly is a level to pursue and promote with children.
- As with all stages of development, individuals can dip into former stages depending upon the circumstances. The previous stages are always a part of a person.
If your child is between ages 5-8, they are likely in the selfish stage of moral development. If your child is ages 9 or 10, reflect on whether they remain in the selfish stage or have begun to move on to the social phase.
- Learn to detect lying with others. Just as children who are learning rules tend to enforce them with their peers, learning about why and how others lie can help children learn about their own lying. The process of exploring a behavior in someone else can help your child become more sensitive and aware of what lying looks and feels like when on the receiving end.
- Teach positive behaviors when you identify misbehaviors. Children are most tempted to lie when they make a poor choice or mistake. With that knowledge, each time your child breaks a rule, consider the question, “What positive behavior can I teach my child to replace what I’ve told them not to do?”
- Use the following simple process called Interactive Modeling. Interacting Modeling can become a powerful teaching tool for parents.3
- Say what you will model and why.
- Model the behavior.
- Ask your child what they noticed.
- Invite your child to model.
- Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
- Practice together.
- Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…” statements.
- Share your family values and need for trust.
- At a family meal, share a personal story about how trust between family members has been critical in an important situation. Talk about how you come up with alternative solutions when you are tempted to lie.
Children who fear punishment when they misbehave are prone to lie to cover up their mistakes. Part of modeling as parents requires learning more about how to teach responsibility and self-discipline through alternative strategies.
Play the game Two Truths and a Lie where a person offers three simple statements, one of which is a lie, to see if the other can guess which one is false. Learn first together about body language signals that reveal a lie.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively working together, or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children to internalize new skills. That practice will help make vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Use “Show me…” statements. You may want to offer your child practice in truth telling when it’s tempting to lie. When you notice a misbehavior, before your child can attempt to cover it up you might say, “Show how you can tell me about a mistake you made. Mistakes are part of learning.”
- Follow up when your child makes mistakes to help them repair harm. If they know there are action steps they can take to make things better after a poor choice, they are far less likely to feel the need for lying.
- Find small opportunities to help your child mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sibling feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?” Allow your child to supply answers and you may be surprised at how many options they generate. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it. Your follow through will help your child follow through while internalizing a critical lesson.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, children get feedback on what they are not doing right, but how often do you recognize when they are working on their behaviors? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” like, “I notice how you told me when you broke the vase. I appreciate your honesty!”
- Focus on the logical consequences of dishonesty. If your child lies about taking an extra piece of candy, talk about and, better yet, show the logical consequences to them.
- Discuss characters in stories. Courage to be true to self is a universal theme that comes up in literature time and again. Find these heroes, particularly those who are flawed and human. Point out their faults and frailties and then learn together how they triumph. Be sure to discuss how the conquering hero has to make choices that do not align with what others want.
- Proactively remind. Often parents have a sense of when a child is tempted to lie. Just before they do, you may whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember we tell the truth even when we make mistakes, and then we’ll figure out the rest together.”
The best way to turn around a misbehavior that may be taking place is by recognizing when and how your child makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some strategies for telling the truth and also taught them why lying is destructive. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions before jumping to a response or a decision for action. Parents and those in a parenting role are often in a position where they have to direct their child’s actions, but jumping in and directing your child’s actions can become the default if you are not careful. Look for chances to ask questions before stepping in with directives. Open-ended questions promote thinking and help your child internalize the evaluative process of responsible decision making – thinking through the action to the consequence sequence before they act.
- “How do you feel about making that decision?”
- “What does your heart or inner voice tell you?”
- “What are some options if you break a rule?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present different social challenges. Being informed about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes and past experiences with honesty. For example, “Remember when you broke your Grandma’s glasses? You told her you were sorry, and she said she knew it was an accident and had them repaired. It was all okay, and we appreciate your honesty.”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for ways to respond to mistakes and poor choices can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feeling in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You told the truth even though it was difficult — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you tell the truth, I will let you choose the game we play after dinner” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You told the truth about what happened. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are telling you the truth when they make a mistake or a poor choice, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you told me when you forgot your scarf at Mitchell’s. I appreciate you telling me.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the full bedtime routine to go smoothly – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Encourage opportunities for fun and further connection.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.