Teaching Honesty and Integrity

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by Stacey Schifferdecker

Most people would agree that is is important to teach honesty and integrity to your children. However, if you were to sit down and write a list of character traits you want your child to develop, chances are honesty would at least be in the top ten. After all, without honesty, our children will be less able to make friends, succeed in a career, and have a happy marriage. The fact is, though, that most children do tell lies. So how we do instill the character trait of honesty in our children? 

Teaching honesty may not be as easy as it seems when trying to teach it to a young child.

First of all, you need to make sure your children understand what lying is and why it is bad. My five-year-old daughter likes to tell stories. She comes home from school telling about the fabulous field trip they had, when they rode elephants to the fire station and used their trunks to help put our fires. Her big brothers tell her she is lying, and I know the only place the kindergarten class went that day was down the hall to the library. But is it a lie? Where is the line between story-telling and outright lying?

In this case, the line comes from motivation. If a child tells an untruth to get out of trouble or to get someone else into trouble, that is a lie. But even if I don’t consider Jocelyn’s stories to be a lie, I still talk to her to make sure she understands the difference between truth and make-believe and that, while there is a time and place for telling stories, it is important to be truthful. (After all, I want to know what she really did at school!)

A good way to subtly show the importance of honesty to your children is to read stories where honesty plays a role. An old favorite is “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Other good ones include Marc Brown’s Arthur and the True Francine, Franklin Fibs by Paulette Bourgeois, and The Berenstain Bears and the Truth by Jan and Stan Berenstain.

Second, you need to create a safe and secure atmosphere in your home where honesty is expected and required. Most children tell lies out of fear. They broke your vase and they are afraid you will be mad, so they say the vase “just fell.” They don’t want to be grounded because they played a computer game instead of doing homework, so they tell you they have no homework. The thing is, kids do make mistakes and break things and forget stuff. If you are overly harsh when your children break a vase, you are encouraging them to lie next time instead of taking responsibility for their actions.

Does this mean your children can do anything and there will be no consequences as long as they ‘fess up? Of course not – there are always consequences. But remember Newton’s law from high school science? For every action there is an EQUAL reaction. Make sure the consequences fit the “crime.” A broken vase shouldn’t equal a month’s grounding!

It is also important that you don’t set your children up to lie. If you know your child has homework but he is playing on the computer, don’t ask him, “Jake, do you have any homework?” You already know the answer. It is better instead to say, “Jake, you know you’re not supposed to play on the computer until your homework is done.”

It also helps to praise your children for telling the truth. When they tell you something you know was difficult, give them a big hug and thank them for being honest with you.

The third and most important way of teaching honesty is to be honest yourself. Don't lie to your children or let them hear you lie to others. If they ask a question you can’t answer, tell them why.

What to do when your children do tell a lie? The best response is to be compassionate and loving. Talk to them about why they lied, what they could have done differently, and what they need to do to make things right. For example, if they lied to someone else, they need to go apologize and tell that person the truth. This gives them a second chance to be truthful.

Stacey Schifferdecker is the happy but harried mother of three school-aged children—two boys and a girl. She is also a freelance writer, a Children’s Minister, a PTA volunteer, and a Scout leader. Stacey has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and French and a Master’s degree in English. She has written extensively about parenting and education as well as business, technology, travel, and hobbies.

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