Honest Parents, Honest Children

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Dishonesty is seductive. It is easy to rationalize telling a lie, to be convinced that it will offer a simple and convenient solution. To further justify telling it, the severity of the lie is mentally downgraded. "It's just a harmless little fib," the inner voice says.

It is hard to get children to leave the park when it is time to go home, so some parents tell them that the park is closing. Parents want their children to eat their vegetables, so they tell them that the eggplant tastes yummy. Visiting the doctor is less stressful without fuss, so parents tell their children that the doctor will not hurt them. Parents throw away an old toy, and tell their child that it must have gotten lost. Leaving the house to run errands can be challenging, so some parents tell their children they will only be gone for a minute. Parents are tired during bedtime stories, so they skip ahead a few pages and as long as the child doesn't notice, it's okay, right? When these "harmless little fibs" are reinforced by seeming to work, parents repeat them and make them habit.

The Costs of Dishonesty

Telling a lie of convenience is like taking a high interest loan. A high interest loan will settle this month's obligations as intended, but will generate even more debt for next month. When next month's bills come due, a more substantial advance will be needed. After bargaining oneself into this pattern, escape is difficult if not impossible. In the same way, the benefits of dishonesty today will be outweighed by the costs tomorrow.

The costs of a lie may be as numerous as they are unpredictable. When a child hasn't learned how to leave the park before he is ready, the parents find themselves repeating the lie that the park is closing the next trip to the park. When this happens, the child does not learn how to quell the urge to play. The scenario must be played out in various settings and circumstances to the pleasure of no one. As the child grows older and smarter, the parents need to make the lie more elaborate. They may even up the ante by threatening to leave the park without the child. Threatening a child with abandonment may hasten the walk out of the park, but it will also make him believe that his parents view him as expendable, and that can be crippling to his confidence.

The child eventually discovers that it was all a lie, though, at which point trust between parent and child is lost. Moreover, the child has been taught that using lies to get what he wants is okay. That child will think it is okay to tell his parents he has already brushed his teeth when he simply does not want to do it. He will see nothing wrong with falsely reporting to his parents that the teacher assigned no homework this weekend. He will convincingly tell Mom and Dad that yes, of course his friend's parents know about the party and will be there the whole time. Each of these untruths opens the door for greater troubles down the road.

Reasons for Dishonesty

No matter how good your example is, however, children will still experiment with dishonesty. They do this for many reasons. Very young children haven't yet learned the difference between truth and lies and therefore lack an ethical foundation on which to base their behavior. Children who do understand the concept of honesty may have good intentions but will appear to lie if they conflate their imagination with reality. Children may be sneaky or untruthful to avoid angering or disappointing their parents, the two people they are intently focused on pleasing. They may be tempted to cheat at games because they haven't yet learned how to accept losing. Or they may simply want to take something that isn't theirs and have a weak resistance against their impulses. When a child behaves dishonestly, it is important to explore his reason so that you can patiently offer guidance in a way that is developmentally and situationally appropriate. In addition to guidance and patience, your example will eventually steer children toward honest behaviors.

The difference between a child whose parents are a good example and one whose parents are a bad example is that the child with dishonest parents will have a distorted sense of ethics to factor into decisions about any contemplated behavior. He will be more inclined to choose the path of dishonesty. When his unprincipled parents berate his decision, he will be unable to comprehend the inconsistency. The parents may even tell him that lying will make his nose grow like Pinocchio. The irony of such a proclamation may be lost on the parents, but not the child. He will come to begrudge the hypocrisy of his parents. The parents have discredited themselves and must now attempt to communicate from a position of weakened credibility. A dishonest example triggers a downward spiral of the wrong behaviors, damaged relationships, and poorly raised adults.

One time we were at the outlet mall a short drive from our house. This outlet mall has coin-operated rides for children stationed around the premises. There I saw a child asking to go on one of the rides, but his dad told him the sign said out of order. The child was not old enough to read, but old enough to figure out that there was no sign. The child knew he was being deceived. Lacking the language skills to mount any meaningful counterargument, he protested with a noisy temper tantrum. The father hoisted the wailing child onto his shoulder and said, "Out of order means out of order" as he casually hauled the boy away.

This was a man who was afraid to say 'no' to his child, probably for purposes of expediency. Granted, rationalizing with a toddler is an energy-intensive undertaking, but destroying trust by using lies and forcefulness is an unwise alternative. This man could have simply told his child no and given the reason. Maybe there was somewhere else to go and not enough time for rides, or maybe the man didn't have any coins to use. Being truthful and then helping the child cope with his frustration would have taken more time, but it would have helped the man avoid the long run costs of the behavior he actually modeled that day. It would have helped him preserve the trust that those types of communications systematically destroy.

Demonstrating Honesty

Honesty should be used in all situations. In addition to providing truthful information, truly honest communicators also volunteer relevant helpful information when its omission could have gone unnoticed. They operate without pretenses, hidden agendas, or undercover maneuvering. They communicate directly and overtly. You are aware that your child might not like eggplant the first time he tries it, so why pretend otherwise? You can let him try it and decide for himself whether he likes it without making him feel manipulated. You can offer a candid explanation that you want the child to at least taste the eggplant before he rejects it because kids generally have to taste strange new foods ten or twenty times before they like it. If you know that your child will be weighed, measured, examined, and inoculated at the doctor's office today, then you can tell him about it. Help him get mentally prepared for the visit and let him know that you will be there for him the whole time. If you need to take away a dangerous toy, you can explain why. Tell your child if you accidentally stepped on it and exposed sharp broken edges, that you are sorry, and that you love him too much to risk his safety by keeping the broken toy around. If a page has been accidentally skipped during a story, point it out. Then you can go back and read it. If you are leaving the house for an hour, then tell him you will be back in an hour. You can let him choose to come with you or not, but make it clear that there are no toys to play with where you are going and no additional purchases will be made regardless of how many candy aisles you walk past. And if he chooses not to come with you, make sure you are back in an hour. A child may interpret "I meant to be back in an hour, but unexpected circumstances intervened" as a lie.

Being honest is simple in concept but can be tricky in practice. Your child may ask about the age of an elderly friend. In situations like this, understand that you don't have to respond to everything in graphic detail in order to maintain integrity. You can tell the truth, that is it is impolite to talk about that sort of thing, and that many adults do not like other people to know their age.

When my son was four years old, he uneasily asked me if he would still get Christmas presents even if he did not behave. I was tempted to indulge his fears in exchange for some good behavior, but felt that deception was a poor option. I told him yes, he will get Christmas presents even if he breaks the rules, but that I expected him to follow the rules anyway.

When my daughter was two years old, I took her to see the doctor. When we arrived, the nurse told me that there were no inoculations scheduled for that visit. So I told Daughter she could relax, there would be no needles today. Then the doctor came in and told me that the flu was going around, and it would be unwise to skip flu shots this year. I had already given Daughter my word that there would be no shots. I decided that my daughter's trust was more important than a bout of the flu that, while inconvenient for her and me, would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of her life. So we skipped flu shots that year.

Your authenticity will enhance your influence. When a child has faith in the sincerity of his caregivers, he can build upon what they tell him. Using what his parents tell him as a starting point, he can focus on making sense of the world around him. If his mind is clouded by mistrust he will be unable to build on any teachings of his parents, instead being preoccupied by doubt. This is completely understandable. How can a child be comfortable with the world around him and all the new things he learns, how can he ever feel he has a firm foundation on which to build if his own parents are lying to him?  

Honesty should be modeled not only in interactions with your children but with everyone, so that your children may be exposed to someone practicing an honest lifestyle. For example, if you promised another adult something in front of your child, then you can allow your child to observe you following through. If you are late to your child's dentist appointment, don't fabricate stories about traffic. Instead, you can apologize for being late and if anyone asks the reason for your delay then respond truthfully even if it shows you in a slightly unfavorable light. If while visiting friends you complement somebody's new hairstyle, then on the way home you can say nice things about that hairstyle.

There is a fine line between tact and disingenuousness. Your example in commenting neutrally yet tactfully on things like strange new hairstyles can later be used to buttress coaching sessions. For example, you might help your child to develop genuine yet socially successful strategies for delicate situations such as accepting unwanted presents. 


One of the most demonstrative times to model honesty is when no one else is watching. If you have been given extra change by a cashier, you can point out the mistake and return the overage. If your barely-three-year old child can get into the pool for free by claiming to be two years old, then you can report his age as three and pay the entry fee. If you accidentally tore a page from a library book that you borrowed, you can report the damage when you return the book. In any such case, you can take the time to explain to your child what you just did and why, and entertain his questions about it. When you rise to the ethical standard of behaving even when you can't be caught, you have grounds to expect your child to follow rules even when you are not watching.

Learning From Mistakes

You are, however, human. Just as your child will sometimes do the wrong things, so too will you. When you have done something wrong, you can use it as an opportunity to show your child how to correct course. Don't let the shame of your misdeed induce you to cover it up with even more wrongs. You can come clean to whomever you've wronged with an apology, and make the situation right again to whatever extent is possible.

You can also allow your child to do the same. When you know him to have done something wrong, don't make him double down by having to lie about it. Attempting to entrap him by asking leading questions with a threatening posture and a rising volume – for example, "Did you!?" – will only serve to scare him into digging a deeper hole for himself. Rather, coax out the truth and be graceful in your forgiveness. The deed may still have consequences, but those should be focused on course correction rather than being punitive. Honesty does not absolve guilt, but it should never be penalized.

When faced with an admission, let your compassion guide your response. By modeling compassion while encouraging honesty, you “get to” help your child cultivate two character traits at the same time.

Author's Note: This is the third in a collection of posts about the example you set. Six different behaviors are covered. Read about compassion here, fairness here, optimism here, and determination here.

·       Which behaviors are important to you?

·       How will you cultivate those behaviors in your home, for your children to emulate?

·       What challenges will you face as you cultivate those behaviors in interactions with your children?

·       How will meeting those challenges make you a better person, and help you improve other facets of your life?

Please share your comments below.

How to Properly Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Honest Parents, Honest Children”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/honest-parents-honest-children.