Instilling honesty, the best policy, in children

You cannot be dishonest and expect to instill the value of honesty in your kids.

You cannot be dishonest and expect to instill the value of honesty in your kids.

What you need to know:

  • Children will be more likely, to tell the truth, if they feel that their parents will be happy about their honesty even if they’ll be punished.
  • Parents should let their children know that they are going to listen to them without getting instantly angry or judgmental.
  • Honesty should start with you because kids learn more by observing and listening.

According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, children tend to be dishonest if they feel their parents will react negatively if they tell the truth. However, children will be more likely to tell the truth if they feel that their parents will be happy about their honesty even if they’ll be punished. This study included children aged between 4 and 9 years old. The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. These results are echoed by Joanne Stern, the author of Parenting is a Contact Sport.

According to Joanne, parents unknowingly set up their children to be dishonest. “If they see or feel that you are harsh or punitive, they will be afraid and decide that dishonesty is better than honesty,” she says. Whether it is children or adults, anyone will come out fighting, denying or lying when pushed against the wall because in such instances, being honest is humiliating. In children, it can be easy for them to feel that they are causing you distress, blame themselves, and decide to be dishonest as a defense mechanism against hurting you when they are on the wrong. “Although there should be a form of punishment for bad behaviour, children should be shown the importance of being honest. For their dishonest tendencies, put more emphasis on honesty instead of punishment,” says Joanne.

Additionally, according to Craig Smith, a psychologist who led the Michigan University research, parents should let their children know that they are going to listen to them without getting instantly angry or judgmental. This should be by way of actions and body language. “As a parent, you might not be happy with what your child has done, but if you want to keep an open line of communication, you can try to show them that you’re happy they have been honest, even though what they did is wrong,” he says. “You can start by conveying that you’re going to listen without getting angry right away. Once they have opened up, explain why what they did was wrong, why they shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in the future, and its repercussions.”

Using such methods to nurture honesty becomes more crucial as your child grows. For instance, Craig and his team found out that children aged between 4 and 5 years are more likely to associate positive reactions to the act of lying and negative feedback to confessing. On the other hand, children aged between 7 and 9 years old tend to associate guilt with lying and positive feedback with confessing.

Strikingly, Joanne notes that you cannot be dishonest and expect to instill the value of honesty in your kids. Honesty should start with you because kids learn more by observing and listening. “Don’t expect your children to tell you the truth if you’re not honest with them, whether what they want to hear is embarrassing or not,” she says. “If you have a habit of lying to them they are more likely to assume that lying is an acceptable trait in human behaviour.” However, your honest must correspond with their level of understanding.

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