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Ask Dr. Bronwyn: How to Raise an Honest Kid

Q: Recently I’ve noticed that Lucy has started lying. Is this normal? It’s sort of making me worried because she’s even lying about the most ridiculous things, like saying she’s washed her hands when they still have peanut butter all over them. Can a child just change? She wasn’t like this at all before. —Liar, Liar My Heart’s on Fire

Written By Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup
Photography Victoria Will

Dear Heart’s on Fire,

Not long ago our 4-year-old daughter told me, “I want to take my Amoxicillin in private … by myself,” as she opened the door to the backyard and stepped outside. Even though I had explained to her that without taking the yucky medicine her ear would continue to hurt, I knew there was a zero-point-zero percent chance the medicine was going down. I found it even funnier that she didn’t realize the door to the yard is glass, allowing me to watch as she stood outside clutching the little cup in her hand. I wondered if she would be sophisticated enough to actually ditch the pink medicine somewhere in the yard and then claim success, but instead, she placed the cup on her little lawn chair and re-entered the kitchen with a look of anxious trepidation on her face.

If you have a child older than 3, then odds are you’ve encountered some budding attempts to deceive you. It can be alarming for parents who’ve been trying to raise moral human beings to all of a sudden feel as though they’ve got a budding liar on their hands. And while your initial instincts might be to use those techniques gleaned from Law & Order marathons to catch your mini in a lie and punish her, research shows that’s not the best strategy for the long term. The ways that you handle truth and consequences when your child is small sets the stage for whether or not she will confide in you as a teen when the stakes are higher.

Before we get into how to deal with a lie, it is important to understand that the ability to lie actually reflects maturing executive function skills and is a milestone in cognitive development. That’s right, so she’s starting to lie more because she’s getting smarter. (Sadly, the research doesn’t explain if this is why super-villains in movies are so brilliant.)

One of the real cognitive milestones that’s connected to lying is what psychologists call “Theory of Mind.” Theory of Mind is the ability to recognize that other peoples’ beliefs or feelings can be different from your own. Before the age of 3, children instead assume that everyone believes what they believe and that beliefs are direct copies of reality. That’s why your toddler doesn’t listen to you when you tell her to give her friend a turn on her tricycle. If your toddler feels happy to be riding her bike, her friend must be happy, too. It’s also the reason your 2-year-old imagines you know whether he’s washed his hands, used the potty or had a treat, even if you weren’t around to see.

In order to lie, your child has to grasp the fact that although he knows perfectly well that he hasn’t brushed his teeth yet, you do not. He has to get that you can feel differently about the same thing in order to be motivated to try and change what you believe by lying. He can tell you’re angry that someone knocked over the plant, so he tells you, “The dog did it,” in order to change how you’re feeling about him.

This milestone isn’t all bad; positive social behaviors begin to emerge as well. In order to feel empathy for someone, for example, a child needs to realize that his friend might feel differently than him. Lying also requires several executive function skills like inhibitory control, planning capabilities and working memory. In order to lie, your child must recognize a risk, plan a fabricated reality, provide details for the new version of what happened and then remembers it later.

My daughter is still a nascent liar, and her willingness to lie clearly wasn’t inhibited by the fact that not taking the medication and lying about it could be harmful to her. By the time kids are around 11, their decisions to lie become more dependent on their evaluations of whether or not they perceive the situation as harmful to themselves or others. That’s why older kids tend to be more concerned with being called a “narc” than telling the truth about what happened.

How then can we encourage children to tell the truth when they’re young, so they’ll be more likely to continue when things get real? Thanks to research, parents have quite a few tools to do just that.

Come up with a motto regarding your stance on lying and use it frequently.

In our family, we say, “Charltons try hard to tell the truth.” Steer clear from making family decrees about never lying, since that’s probably a lie.

Teach them that telling the truth takes courage.

Empathize with your child about how scary it can feel to tell the truth. Share developmentally appropriate examples of when you were terrified to tell the truth, but you did so anyway.

Characterize lying as being worse than most offenses.

Children often lie to get out of trouble. Let them know that the consequences for lying will always be more severe than the consequence for the misbehavior — that is if they tell the truth.

Don’t investigate or accuse.

Doing so makes your child feel like he isn’t trusted, or that he’s bad. Forcing the truth out of your child won’t encourage him to take responsibility for bad behavior; it will only put him on the defense and teach him to become better at lying in the future.

Don’t count on harsh punishments to curb lying.

The research is clear that children raised in punitive, authoritarian households not only are more likely to lie but are also more skilled at not getting caught for deviant behavior. This tendency is dangerous given the risks faced by middle and high school youth.

Make it easy to tell the truth.

When you respond calmly to your child’s mistakes and accidents, you make it easier for her to accept responsibility, which then gives you ample opportunities to praise her willingness to tell the truth, making truth-telling more likely.

Model truth-telling.

It’s hard to expect your child to tell the truth if you don’t. If you catch yourself fibbing in front of your child — like saying over the phone that you took the day off to wait for the cable guy when you really didn’t — admit the deception before your child catches you in the lie. Let him know that you spoke impulsively and that you regret not telling the truth. If you don’t, what you’ll model is that that lying is a strategy he can use.

When you see others act honestly, point it out to your child.

If a person chases after you to let you know you dropped a dollar bill, make sure your child knows how impressed you are by her honesty.

Get your child to promise that she’ll tell you the truth first.

Much research has shown that children as old as 16 are less likely to lie after pledging to tell the truth. This helps explain why school honor codes work.

Skip the stories about the negative consequences for lying.

There is evidence that messages from old favorites like The Boy Who Cried Wolf don’t do anything to discourage lying. In contrast, tales that applaud telling the truth, like George Washington and the cherry tree, do appear to promote truth-telling, albeit modestly.

Avoid setting up your kid to lie.

If you are certain that you know the truth, don't challenge your child’s lie, since doing so puts her on the defense and increases her commitment to the veracity of the lie. Instead, say something like, “I know that telling the truth can be scary but remember, in our family, we try hard to tell the truth, and have different consequences for telling the truth about something than for lying. I’ll give you time to try and get the courage up to tell me what really happened.” And then wait. If she comes to you with the truth, praise her enthusiastically for having the courage to do so. Remember, your end goal is to increase your child’s willingness to be honest with you about things she’s scared to admit.

If your child sticks to a lie, try to ignore it.

Let him know that you have to trust that he is telling you the truth. At most, explain that it’s important for him to tell you the truth even when he’s scared so that you can continue to believe what he says in the future. Then, if at all possible, move on.

As your child gets older, begin to address the fact that sometimes being honest can contradict being polite or kind.

Your child’s eventually going to want to know why. For example, you don’t want him to tell your friend that he hates the gift she gave him. Talk about the importance of honesty but also feelings. Tell your child that when he thanks someone for a gift (even one he doesn’t like), he is thanking them for their generosity and for thinking of him. Discuss ways your child can be an honest person while also being kind and polite.

Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.