Birth to 2

Babies are the most honest of human beings, communicating their needs, wants, and emotions directly through crying, laughing, or cooing. By age two, however, toddlers may naturally turn to oppositional statements, like "Not sleepy!" or "Not wet!" (though clearly the opposite is true). These aren't lies per se, but ways for kids to control their world and assert their will.

What Can Parents Do?

  • If your child gives you an oppositional statement like "Not sleepy!" say, "I know you want to stay up and play, but I can see that you are sleepy."
  • Work on different ways of verbalizing desires, focusing on honest expressions of your child's will.
  • What's the Goal? To teach your child the basic difference between truth and falsehood.

    3 to 4

    A preschooler's lies tend to be expressions of deep wishes or a lack of clarity on the difference between fantasy and reality. Statements such as "I color better than anyone else in my class," and "I've been on an airplane 25 times" convey sentiments that children badly want to be real.

    Blatant lying to escape blame ("I didn't spill the milk") is an outgrowth of typical preschool-age thinking that "you are what you do." The child doesn't want to think of herself as bad, so she denies having done a bad thing. But by this age, children know lying is wrong.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Say, "Maybe you did it by accident, but I need you to help clean it up," to teach a child to take responsibility for her actions.
  • Rather than label a hyperbole-prone child a liar, it's better to say, "You wish you could do that."
  • What's the Goal? To have your child understand that you will love him even if he does something bad, and that you value telling the truth above all.

    5 to 7

    Children this age typically do not have an internal sense of honesty. They generally tell the truth because their parents say lying is wrong . At this age, children exaggerate to feel superior ("My father makes more money than yours") or to avoid punishment. On the playing field, kids may unfairly add points to their game or falsely protest, "That ball crossed the line -- it's out of bounds!"--signs that they're not developmentally ready to handle losing.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Read your child the story of "the boy who cried wolf" to illustrate the negative consequences of lying and the positive consequences of telling the truth.
  • Model honesty by, for example, admitting when you make mistakes or returning incorrect change if you've been given too much. What's the Goal? To reinforce the external sense of honesty, even if the internal sense is not yet developed.
  • 8 to 10

    By this point, children recognize truthfulness as a moral standard.. Classmates and teammates expect honesty from one another, and children who are caught in a lie ("You did so take Scott's water bottle--we saw you!") can face ridicule and contempt from their friends.

    At this age, children are sometimes urged by their parents to tell a "white lie" --for example, to tell Aunt Ruth they like the sweater even if they didn't. Such demands indicate that complete honesty can sometimes be hurtful.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Explain that abject honesty can sometimes be hurtful, and urge her to think about how her comments might make someone feel.
  • Set up an "honor code" at home. Choose certain tasks, such as completing math homework or making his bed, which you trust him to do. Explain that when you ask, "Did you make your bed?" you will forgive him if he says "no," but that there will be negative consequences if he does not tell the truth.
  • What's the Goal? To develop a more sophisticated understanding of honesty, which distinguishes between dangerous lying (cheating on a test) and hurtful truth-telling ("Your haircut is ugly!").

    11 to 13

    In the preteen years, peers gain in importance and influence. Seeing other kids who lie or cheat and get away with it, a child may question the need to maintain a high standard of honesty. He may also agonize over whether to "tell" on cheating classmates. If a child who has internalized honesty does tell a lie, she may feel tremendous guilt--until she confesses.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Point out that even if a friend has gotten away with cheating, there will be consequences to the dishonesty later (she will have trouble on the next math test, for example).
  • Reinforce your desire to have an honest line of communication between yourself and your child. Listen with understanding when your child confesses to having lied.
  • What's the Goal? To solidify an internal sense of honesty, which will work to override temptations from peers to cheat or lie.

    14 to 18

    Teenagers' ability to consider issues and events from multiple viewpoints helps them recognize how destructive dishonesty can be. They are aware, for example, that cheating on a test means betraying the teacher's trust and defrauding the other test-takers, as well as failing themselves.

    Nevertheless, a teenager's drive for honesty may be compromised by her need for peer approval. Shoplifting is a big problem largely because kids this age feel pressured to do whatever their friends are doing, even if they know it's wrong.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Hold yourself to a high standard of honesty. Kids this age are highly attuned to parental hypocrisy.
  • Remind your child about the consequences of cheating in school, taking things from stores or from other kids--explain that permanent marks on school and legal records can follow dishonest acts.
  • Point out examples of dishonesty and honesty in public life-crooked business people who go to jail, whistleblowers who tell the truth.
  • What's the Goal? To reinforce earlier lessons about honesty and emphasize how adults follow the dictates of their conscience in everyday life.

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