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Encouraging Honesty in Your Child

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Dear Elizabeth,
My 4-year-old daughter is not always honest. This can be very frustrating. How concerned should I be & how can I teach her to tell the truth?
Carrie Landers
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
Host
  • Most young children exaggerate, make up stories & say things that aren’t true
  • Model being honest & taking responsibility for your mistakes
  • Let children know that you won’t be upset if they admit the truth
Expert Advice
Kate Driscoll, Ph.D.
Kate Driscoll, Ph.D.
Clinical psychologist
It is very common for kids not to tell the complete truth. Most young children are dishonest occasionally. Young children have not yet developed the notion of telling the truth versus telling a lie that older children and adults have mastered.

Young children are not honest (in the way we define honesty) for a variety of reasons, most of which are quite adaptive and developmentally appropriate. Your child may be pretending, by saying something that they wish to be true, such as, "I didn't do it." Dishonesty may simply be an attempt to answer a question that a child is unsure of the answer to, so it’s more like a guess. For example, you walk into the kitchen and your 4-year-old is sitting alone. You ask him where Daddy went, and he is unsure, so he creates a story about Daddy going to the store to buy ice cream for dessert.

The Difference Between Fantasy and Lying
Fantasy relates to your child's developing imagination and creativity. For example, your 3-year-old daughter may tell you that her 9-month-old brother just told her that he really wants to order pizza for dinner tonight. You know that your 9-month-old is not talking about pizza yet! Your daughter made this statement because she wants to have pizza for dinner tonight.

Most children are able to distinguish between fantasy and reality by age 7. Many 7-year-olds still engage in pretend or make-believe play, but they are typically able to articulate the notion that they are just pretending.

When adults know a young child is not being honest, they should be patient and should remind themselves that the child is not really "lying" in the way that adults conceive of the term. Adults can help a child understand what really happened. For example, if your child tells a peer that she got a pony for her birthday, you can interject and clarify that your child wishes that she got a pony for her birthday. You can also help your child fix the problem. For example, if your child is dishonest after spilling juice on the rug, you can clean up the mess together. This will help your child to take responsibility for his or her actions in the future.

Encouraging Honesty
Adults can encourage honesty by praising children for telling the truth and by teaching your child that it is safe to tell the truth. For example, if your child admits to not washing her hands after leaving the bathroom, you should immediately praise her for telling the truth, and then you can remind her to return to the bathroom to wash her hands.

Adults can contribute to a child being dishonest. One way is by being dishonest themselves. If your children hear you telling lies or being dishonest, they may learn that it is acceptable to tell fibs or lies. Another way is by reinforcing children when they are dishonest. For example, if your child is dishonest and you later repeat the story to a friend, marveling at how "cute" the story was, your child may learn that dishonesty is acceptable and worthy of attention.

Imaginary Friends
A child having an imaginary friend is not a form of dishonesty. Imaginary friends, in fact, are very common. In the latest studies, it’s been shown that more than two-thirds of young children have some sort of imaginary playmate. As children get older they generally desire to function more in the real world, and these imaginary friends start to disappear. By age seven, one-third of children still have an imaginary friend. A small percentage of children still have an imaginary friend by the age of twelve.

Parents should not be concerned if their child has an imaginary playmate. There are many benefits to children having imaginary friends. They provide companionship and offer protection. They reflect a child’s imagination. They can help a child cope with changes and transitions in their lives. Finally, they can help children develop their verbal skills.
Child Care Provider Comments
David Cooley
David Cooley
Father of one daughter
My daughter likes to come home, and I will say, “Who did you play with at school?” She’ll say, “Nobody would play with me.” So I say, “Really? Nobody would play with you? All right. Let’s go ask your teacher.” Then she’ll admit, “Well, I played with Sammy and Emerson.” I think she enjoys the fact that she sort of gets a little bit of a reaction out of me. She makes me laugh when she makes up stuff like that. But I do correct her and make her tell me what really went on.
Marianella Hickery
Marianella Hickery
Child care provider for 20 years
If there is some confusion about whether or not a child is being truthful, the parents should feel comfortable enough to talk to the provider to see if what the child is speaking really is the truth. I make sure to communicate clearly with the parents about their children. We communicate with each other and everything gets clarified. Children at young ages may not be able to express themselves truthfully in ways that adults understand to be the truth. One of the most important things we can do as adults is to be honest in front of children. Children should not see us being dishonest or telling white lies. I think we can encourage honesty by example.
Janis Sanders
Janis Sanders
Grandmother of four
When a child doesn’t tell the truth, I think they are doing so mostly because they are afraid of getting into trouble. Today my granddaughter broke my window. I asked her what happened. She said, “I don’t know.” I asked her if she wanted to tell me again. She finally did. I think it’s important they feel like they are not going to get into trouble, and that it’s better to tell truth.

Honesty Book Featured Activity:
Honesty Book
Encouraging Honesty in Your Child Featured Video:
Encouraging Honesty in Your Child
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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