On your typical morning rounds of “clean-up-the-toy-tornado” you notice a new toy mixed in with the others.
It wasn’t one that you purchased and it wasn’t a gift.
Calling your child into the room, you ask, “Where did this come from?”
“I don’t know,” she responds. Shifting her weight from one foot to the other and avoiding eye contact.
You know you’ve caught her in a lie, “This isn’t our toy. How did it get in the toybox? Is it a friend’s toy?”
“Umm…yeah. Yeah. It’s a friend’s toy.”
The story doesn’t add up and you’re getting a sense that your daughter isn’t telling you the whole truth.
Before you lose your cool – and miss an opportunity to get the rest of the story – read these tips.
How to promote an attitude of honesty in your home
- Your response matters: It’s natural to overreact when you catch your child in a lie (or you suspect they are lying). However, this response hinders honesty because your kids may do whatever they can to avoid being yelled at (or interrogated) in the future. Instead, work on getting yourself calm first. Take some deep breaths. Relax your face. Unclench your fists. Not only will you appear less threatening, you will be able to think a little more clearly in the moment.
- Phrase your questions carefully: Set your child up for a positive response by making observations and asking open-ended questions. “I noticed there are 5 cupcakes missing” may be more effective than “Did you eat those cupcakes?!” Or, “I see you cut your hair,” may be more effective than asking, “What did you do!?” Or, “What are your plans for getting your English paper turned in?” may be more effective than, “Why didn’t you turn in your essay?!”
- Make it safe to tell the truth: Many children will lie to escape a consequence or punishment. Some children already feel so ashamed that they will argue and avoid conversations, especially if they know a punishment is coming. If your goal is to promote honesty, use moments of truth-telling as a learning opportunity, rather than a chance to pile on additional consequences. Stay focusing on keeping yourself calm and thinking before you speak. Demonstrate to your kids that you value their honesty over their ability to make a good choice 100% of the time.
- Empathize with the struggle: Telling the truth is only part of the story here. There may have been peer pressure in the moment, one bad choice that snowballed out of control, and impulsive decision that your child immediately regretted, or a decision that wasn’t completely thought through. Be willing to listen openly, putting yourself in your child’s shoes, and seeing things from their perspective (even if you do not agree).
- Keep development in mind: Young children have a blurred understanding of reality and fantasy. Sometimes, their “lies” are actually wishes, expectations, or lack of knowledge about a topic. “My neighbor has a unicorn,” may simply be imagination gone wild or a fun thought. As children grow, their understanding of reality becomes more clear and lying may have a deeper purpose. Be curious about the underlying reasons your child is struggling to tell the truth in this situation.
- Encourage ways to make it right: Rather than forcing your child to complete a task or make amends immediately, open the conversation about unintended consequences, people who may have been hurt, things that were broken, how other people may feel, etc. Then help your child brainstorm ways to right a wrong, even if it was unintended or they feel ashamed. The goal is to help your child see that the lie does not define them and that there is always a way to make it better.
- Make it a family expectation: Be aware of times when you stretch the truth, ask your kids to lie about their age, or tell old Aunt Martha that you’re “too busy to stop by” when you really just don’t want to hear her talk about her dog for three hours. Set an example for your children by practicing honesty with strangers as well as within the family. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it, rather than minimizing it. In other words, act as you want your children to act.
When your child tells a lie
Getting back to the conversation, you decide to put some of these tips into action…
“I’ve never seen this toy before, but it looks really cool.”
“Yeah,” your child responds, a little less guarded now.
“I know that I didn’t buy it, and you didn’t get it as a gift, so I’m not sure how it ended up here.”
Your child is quiet, avoiding eye contact.
“It’s hard to tell the truth sometimes, huh?” you say empathetically. “Can you help me get this back to the right person?”
From there, you can work together to return the toy and talk about what to do next time she sees a cool toy that belongs to someone else.
Promoting an attitude of safety around telling the truth is not always immediate or easy. That’s OK. Take it one conversation, one moment of honesty at a time.