Helping Children to Tell the Truth

(by Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller, NCBP) Honesty is the basis for any relationship because it develops trust and upon that foundation simple things like communication and responsibility rest. When a child lies, that trust is broken and the relationship suffers. Parents often don’t know how to handle dishonesty especially when they find common discipline techniques don’t fully address the problem. A more comprehensive plan is usually necessary since dishonesty often has several components. Here are some suggestions for dealing with honesty and lying.

1. Young children often confuse truth and fantasy so some extra teaching in this area will be helpful. Talk about reality and truth and how they are different from fantasy, wishes, possibility, pretend, and make believe. Require that children use cues to identify anything other than reality. Here are some ideas: “I think it happened this way,” “I think this is the answer,” “I’m not sure...” “Maybe...” (possibility) “I wish this were true,” “I’d like it if...” (wish) “I’d like to tell you a story...” “I can imagine what it would be like to...” (fantasy)

2. Use the Bible verse Proverbs 30:32 to teach children to stop talking in the middle of a speaking mistake. When you sense a child is beginning to stray from the truth, stop them. “I want you to stop talking for a minute.” Sometimes children just get started with one lie and keep going. When parents try to argue with children about a lie, it often perpetuates more lies. Sometimes you just have to say, “Stop talking about that and choose something else to talk about.”

3. If a child lies impulsively, work on self-discipline. Sometimes children who are impulsive blurt out things without thinking. Other times they start talking and don’t know how to stop. This impulsivity component can lead to dishonesty because of a lack of self-control. It’s not always malicious lying, but it’s still not good and shouldn’t be excused since the problem often gets worse. Even though children may have poor impulse control, they must learn to tell the truth. The route, though, may contain more self-discipline training than some of the other suggestions.

4. Teach children about the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt is a gift we freely give to people. It’s the tendency to believe someone and it comes naturally with relationships. But once someone is found to be dishonest, he or she loses the benefit of the doubt, and it then needs to be earned back by being “caught” doing the right thing. Once a child has lied, everything becomes suspect. You may even question something that is found to be true later. A child may be hurt by this, but that hurt is the natural consequence of mistrust which in turn comes from lying. Being believed is a privilege earned when children are responsible in telling the truth on a regular basis. Tell your child that you would like to believe him but you can’t until he earns that privilege back by being honest. The road back to being trusted is a difficult one, but it is possible. Teach your children that it’s much easier to remain trustworthy then to try to earn trust back. If you’re child has already lost the benefit of the doubt, clearly define what honesty looks like and then check up on him often. Your goal is to find your child trustworthy again.

5. Some situations won’t be clear. Children may lie to avoid punishment. You find yourself in a predicament because proof seems impossible yet you have a sense that this child is not telling the truth. When possible, don’t choose that situation as your battle. It’s too sticky. You will usually have other clearer opportunities later. Children who have a problem with lying, demonstrate it often. Choose the clearer battles and use those situations to discipline firmly.

6. Confrontation should result in repentance. This may seem unrealistic at first but keep it in mind as your goal. Children who are confronted with the fact that they are telling a lie should immediately confess and apologize. A child who is defensive is relying on arguing and justifying as manipulative techniques in order to avoid taking responsibility. When a child is caught in a lie have that child confess. You might ask the question, “What did you do wrong?” and have the child say, “I lied.” Confession is the first step toward change but is often quite a challenge.

7. Be proactive in teaching about honesty. Tell stories from your life or read stories like The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Boy who Cried Wolf, Pinocchio, and Ananias and Sapphira from the Bible. There are several good books at your local library on this subject that are written for children and are well illustrated to capture their interest.

8. Memorize Bible verses dealing with honesty. The Scriptures have a way of appealing to a child’s conscience and changing a child’s heart.

9. Honesty requires courage and humility. Dishonesty always occurs under pressure. Pray with your child for strength to do what’s right even under pressure.

10. The book Good and Angry, Exchanging Frustration for Character in You and Your Kids Good and Angry coverhas a whole chapter (Chapter 8) on lying. The entire book would be helpful for character development in your child. Chapter 8 focuses on building integrity. By putting your focus on the positive instead of just trying to remove the negative you can see significant progress.

11. Look for underlying issues in a child’s life. Some children who lie are lazy and just don’t have the character necessary to work hard. The solution to lying may, in part, require more work to develop that character. Other children have a poor view of correction and react defensively whenever challenged or corrected. Developing a plan for addressing correction wisely may contribute to honesty as well.

Dishonesty is a character weakness. God wants to grow your child to be strong on the inside. That strength comes from his power and grace. Spend time praying and talking about the Lord with your child. Make that spiritual connection more clear so that your child can sense the Holy Spirit’s conviction on an ongoing basis.

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