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On Raising an Honest Child

Published on Psychology Today.

Truthfulness is a trait that many people value. In fact, honesty is part of most people’s sense of morality, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. However, in the recent political climate where the value of honesty has come into question, it’s become increasingly important for parents to teach their children how to be honest individuals. But how? How do we raise an honest child?

First, it’s important to point out that children are born honest. I don’t mean that they have an honesty gene or that there is some area of the brain devoted to honesty; I mean that they can’t lie. Literally. Lying is a complicated cognitive feat when you think about it: It involves understanding that other people have minds and thoughts that are different from your own, that someone might have what’s called a false belief, or an understanding of the world that is different from reality, and that such a false belief might benefit you. The ability to reason about other people’s mental states in this way is called Theory of Mind.

Although reasoning about mental states is something that comes rather naturally to adults, it’s not something that comes as easily for children, and children often fail tasks that test for theory of mind until they are about 5 years of age. Here’s an example: Let’s say two little girls—Sally and Anne—are playing with a marble. After they’re done, Sally places the marble in a basket for safekeeping, and then leaves the room. While Sally is gone, Anne moves the marble from the basket to a box in the same room. When Sally comes back, where does she think the marble is? Obviously the answer is that she thinks it’s in the basket, right where she left it. But in order for you to know that, you have to understand both what Sally thinks (the marble is in the basket) and the reality of the situation (the marble is in the box). Seems like simple stuff for you, but it’s pretty complicated for a preschooler, and 3-year-olds typically get this question wrong; they usually say that Sally thinks the marble is in the box. Why? Because they have trouble understanding that others can have a false belief, or a belief that is inconsistent with reality.

Children run into the same problem with lying, which also requires an understanding that someone else can have a false belief. So not surprisingly, children show evidence of lying around the same time they start to pass theory of mind tasks, around the age of 4 or 5. In a typical lab-based lying test, children are told not to peek at a toy while an experimenter looks away. This is hard for kids, so it might not surprise you that 80% of children peek at the toy. What is surprising is that when asked to confess later on, almost all of the 2-year-olds tested admit to breaking the rules, but the older the child, the more likely he or she is to lie about peeking.

This brings us to the problem at hand: By the age of 5, children are pretty competent liars, and they report to know that lying is wrong, but they do it anyway. On top of that, there is evidence that 4- and 5-year-olds feel pretty good about lying if in the end, there is a positive outcome. Given that in reality, lying often does have its rewards—like getting a better grade after cheating, or getting to eat a delicious cookie after stealing it from the jar—what can parents do to encourage children to tell the truth? Research suggests that a few things might work.

First, hold on to those old fables like “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” that promote honesty; research suggests that reading these stories to children actually makes them more likely to be truthful. But be wary: The stories that really work are the ones that promote the positive consequences of telling the truth. Stories like the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or “Pinocchio,” that only tout the negative consequences of lying are not as effective at promoting honesty.

Second, children are also more likely to tell the truth when they expect positive outcomes for truth telling from their parents. In a study where children heard a story about a character who stole a cookie and later lied about it, children who were most likely to endorse a confession also expected more positive parental responses from truth telling. In other words, children who said that the character in the story should tell the truth most often had parents who praise (and do not punish) their children when they tell the truth about breaking a rule.

Third, having good role models for honesty matters. Children are most likely to pick up behaviors that they see at home, so it shouldn’t be surprising that children are more likely to lie if they see an adult lying first. Further, children are less likely to lie if parents give them reasons not to, and children are more likely to confess their transgressions if they previously promised to tell the truth.

Altogether, while this research suggests that you can start expecting tall tales in your household once your child reaches the age 4 or 5, there are some simple ways to promote honesty in even the littlest of liars. First, parents should praise truthful behavior, even after a child has broken the rules; in other words, children are more likely to tell the truth after doing something wrong if they think they will be praised for their honestly instead of punished for their transgression. Second, talk to children about the value of telling the truth or tell them stories that highlight the positive benefits of truth telling instead of the negative consequences of lying. Finally, perhaps the best thing you can do is to be truthful yourself, because ultimately children will use your honesty as a guide from which to model their own.

Photo by Alisha Funkhouser/Flickr

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