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Teaching Kids To Tell the Truth

  1. Come to terms with your own “triggers.” “Triggers” are issues that set us off out of proportion to the situation because of past painful experiences. Bill needed to come to terms with his painful childhood memory of his dad’s dishonest behavior in a way that didn’t visit it on his son. Once he understood this, Bill was able to be less reactive.
  2. If things have become overblown, apologize. Bill needed to make a change in how he was handling the situation but he needed to do so in a way that would be clear to his son. An apology is a marker for change. He told Amory that he gets so upset about lying because it hurts his feelings but now he knows yelling about it hurts Amory’s feelings too. He is genuinely sorry for that. He then told Amory that they would work on the problem together. This helps Amory make sense of what, to him, could be a very confusing change in his dad’s behavior.
  3. Talk about how important it is to tell the truth. Even children as young as 3 or 4 can understand how important it is to tell the truth. However, conversations about it need to take place when there is no immediate issue and when the adults can be calm. There are many excellent children’s books that can help. Bill dug up a book about the boy who called wolf to read to Amory. They were then able to talk about it together.

    It was important that Janice got involved with this as well. Amory needed to understand that both of his parents wanted him to tell the truth. Bill needed to feel that Janice took the issue as seriously as he did.

  4. Help children sort reality from fiction. At ages 4 – 5 children often have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. When Amory says he’s the fastest in the class, it’s because he wishes he were and sometimes pretends he is. If Bill is sure that Amory really isn’t the fastest, a more helpful response than “You’re lying again” is to say “I bet you really wish that was true. Running faster than everyone else would feel great!” Bill was able to implement this change right away.
  5. Don’t set a child up to say what they think you want to hear. Rather than ask “Did you feed the dog?” when he knows Amory has forgotten, Bill learned to say something like, “Rex looks hungry. I bet you forgot. Do you need help getting his dinner?”

    After the chore is done, it’s time to talk some more. Bill talked regularly to Amory about how important it is that he do his chores and be truthful about it. This puts the emphasis on taking care of business and shows Amory that lying doesn’t get him out of doing what he is supposed to do.

  6. Catch children doing the right thing. Whenever Amory shows trustworthiness or truthfulness, both parents now catch him being good. This has shifted the emphasis from getting negative attention for doing the wrong thing to getting positive attention for doing the right thing. Children thrive on attention. It’s important that we give them the right kind.

Fast forward three months. Bill has stuck with the program and Amory is a much happier — and honest — little boy.

Janice is relieved. She had felt caught between the two “men” in her life. She didn’t like seeing her son scolded so much by his dad but she didn’t want to undermine her husband either. A new approach to teaching put her back on the same team with Bill.

Bill is relieved. Once he was given some information and some tools, he became a consistent and much more friendly teacher for his son and it’s paid off.

I’m relieved too. Therapy doesn’t always work so well or so quickly. But in this case, we all made a good team.

Teaching Kids To Tell the Truth

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Teaching Kids To Tell the Truth. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.