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How to Raise an Honest Kid (But Not a Narc)

Here's what parents who want to raise honest kids need to keep in mind.

Babies don’t lie. Toddlers rarely lie. Little kids lie a lot. And it’s all good. When a child begins lying, it’s a pretty good sign that they are experiencing some healthy cognitive development. Lying tends to give way to honesty and solid communication skills over time when parents aggressively police behavior. Development and education on right and wrong (don’t steal cookies) leads to a multi-faceted understanding of the complex concept of honesty.

The process takes time and parents have to understand and remember that honesty is not as simple as telling the truth. Kids are not taught to be totally truthful and they shouldn’t be. Total honesty is socially unacceptable, says child psychologist Gene Beresin, who heads up the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also says that teaching honesty is a complex and nuanced long-game. In other words, it’s not easy.

“Knowing right from wrong precedes what we call ‘honesty’ and ‘the truth.’ That is a much higher concept for kids. That doesn’t really settle in until early school age. By the time the child is, say, five or six years old, they understand what truth and falsehood are. Younger children, like toddlers, know ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ That’s the prelude to honesty, and parents model that through their actions,” says Beresin. Here’s what parents who have honest kids do for their kids. 

They Are Honest Themselves
Yes, this is incredibly self-explanatory. But when teaching kids the basics about right and wrong from a very early age, try not to lie in front of them too much. Beresin’s example? Mom is out with the kids while dad is cooking dinner. On the way home, they stop at a sporting goods store to check some stuff out. When they get home late and dad asks mom where she is, mom shouldn’t answer “We got stuck in traffic.” It’s important for parents to tell the truth, even about the little stuff. It sends a message and kids will notice.

They Admit When They Are Wrong
If parents make a mistake — like if they forgot to pack their kid’s favorite dip to go with their carrots at lunch — they should own up to that. “Telling the truth, confessing it, apologizing for it and making amends is really important,” sys Beresin.

They’re Authoritative — Not Authoritarian
Raising honest kids takes a lot of patience. As kids age, and their life changes at scale, it’s critical they feel comfortable being honest with their parents so punishment is not a silver bullet. “Parents should be willing to at least give their kids credit for talking about [things they might get in trouble for.] They don’t necessarily need to change the rules. But parents who only say ‘You broke the rules and there’s no talking about this thing,’ have kids who don’t believe they can talk to their parents,'” says Beresin. When kids break the rules, they should have some consequences for that behavior. But discussing and explaining those rules, while also praising your kid for being honest, will help them continue to be honest with you in the future when the stakes could be raised.

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They Use Media to Model
Parents who raise honest kids employ modeling as they read books or watch movies with their kids and characters in media lie or mislead others. They make a point to pause the movie or take a break from the book to explain what’s happening, and why it’s wrong.

They Understand That Honesty Takes Time
While young kids can really only understand the difference from ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ teens are able to understand complex behaviors and abstract concepts, and toddlers only know that mom and dad said to have one cookie and they took two. In other words, the lessons that parents encounter with their toddler on honesty shouldn’t be the same shouldn’t be the same ones they deal with for their teenager. Teens will deal with peer pressure, parties, cheaters in class. Toddlers will deal with tattle-tales and made up stories. With children, conversations about honesty tend to fall into the “right” or “wrong” categories; with adolescents, parents who have honest have conversations about why honesty is a valuable social tool and when withholding information is important to maintain relationships. Also, be prepared to make sure that lying doesn’t become a habit for naturally non-confrontational kids.