I want my child to be more honest. What can I do?

“It wasn’t me who left food in the basement.”

“There wasn’t any change from the money you gave me for the movies.”

“You never told me I was supposed to feed the cat.”

Kids lie for many reasons. The main one is to avoid getting into trouble. A child who fears punishment may lie, hoping she’ll avoid the consequences of misbehaving. The harsher the possible punishment and the stricter and more inflexible her parents are, the more likely she is to bend the truth.

Kids also lie to get out of chores or schoolwork (“Can I stay home today? I have a really bad stomachache”) or to feel part of a group (“Yeah, I saw that video too”). Kids may use lies to impress others and prop up a poor self-image: “I got an A on that test.” “I go to Florida all the time.” “The coach said I was the best on the team.”

Some kids lie because they’re able to get away with it. Their parents fail to set adequate limits and don’t teach the value of honesty. And finally, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds sometimes lie to protect their friends. At these ages they become more secretive and show great loyalty to friends, even ones who smoke, drink, cut classes, or do other things parents don’t approve of.

To get your child to become more honest, be unambiguous about your expectations: “I won’t accept lying.” “People in a family have to trust each other. If I can’t trust you, I can’t let you do the things you ask and I can’t count on you to be responsible.” “I always expect you to tell me the truth.”

Be a good role model to your child. Since your child will know when you’re lying to her, be honest about everyday events as well as important issues such as illness, separation, and unemployment. Show your distaste for acquaintances, celebrities, politicians, and publications that exaggerate or distort the truth. Don’t make excuses for people who lie.

Make a clear distinction between acceptable white lies told outside the family and the need for honesty within the family. She can understand that white lies are sometimes necessary for safety or to keep from hurting someone’s feelings: “I had to tell her I liked her hair. She just had it cut.” “If someone calls when I’m not home, just say I’m in the shower.”

Set firm limits and let her know there will be consequences if she doesn’t tell you the truth. Punishment can include grounding, or loss of allowance or privileges. Use a firm, calm tone to discuss the seriousness of lying.

You may find that punishment isn’t needed at all. If you emphasize your disappointment and hurt, she may decide that the consequences of lying —including feeling ashamed and guilty—are worse than the consequences of confessing to the original misbehavior. Appealing to her conscience this way will work best if you have a good relationship and if she values your approval. An important way to get her to become more honest is to strengthen the ties between you.

When she does tell the truth about misbehaving, praise her honesty. If she lies but later offers a genuine apology for doing so, accept the apology. You will still have to decide if the original misbehavior requires punishment. Being honest shouldn’t wipe out the consequence of negative actions, but you may decide to be a little more lenient to encourage her honesty.

Don’t put yourself in a bind by offering to forgo punishment in exchange for the truth. You’ll lose no matter what your child says. Either you’ll give up the option of punishment even if you find out it’s necessary, or you’ll change your mind once you hear the truth and come down harshly, in which case she will see you as dishonest yourself. Instead of being lenient or manipulative, simply demand the information you want, make guesses until you arrive at the truth, or punish your child if she won’t tell you want you want to know.

If your child regularly lies and exaggerates, try to find out why. Are you too accommodating? Too inflexible? Does your child feel jealous of a sibling? Do you spend enough time with her? Do you give her enough positive feedback and encouragement? Is family discord causing stress? Does she have low self-esteem? If lying is a symptom of deeper problems, limits and punishment won’t improve her behavior, you’ll need to change the circumstances that keep her from being truthful.

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