Is punishing our children fostering dishonesty? 8 steps to get your kids to tell the truth.

Written by Belinda Johnston

When my seven year old daughter asked me if it was more important to be nice or to tell the truth, my initial thought was, “What has she done?”

I assumed she had been up to mischief and was battling with her conscience on whether or not to confess.

I should have immediately advised her to tell the truth – as honesty is a valued quality worth instilling in our children – but I needed to ensure I wasn’t diminishing the importance of kindness either.

My response?

I told her both were equally important but she needed to ensure no-one would be hurt if she chose to be nice.

I gave her time to process my response which sealed the fate of her ‘secret’ and she promptly decided to confess.

It turns out, she and her sister had each won a lollipop (disguised as a dress ring) at the local game arcade their dad took them to.

The girls kept the secret from their dad, knowing that ingesting any form of sugar in our household required a formal verbal request and a prior good behaviour record.

Her older sister had persuaded her to keep it secret so they could enjoy the treat.

Not wanting to disappoint her older sister, she had reluctantly agreed.

Now however, her conscience had got the better of her and she wanted to come clean.


Never punish a child for being honest


If a child volunteers information with the knowledge it may get them ‘in trouble’, make a point of thanking them for being truthful.

Children need to know it is safe to do so.

In addition, no matter how serious the act, make a deliberate effort to remain calm.

Did I punish my daughter for revealing the truth?

No. I believe this would have only taught her to keep the truth under wraps in future.

She had specifically asked I not tell her older sister how I came to find out about the lollipops.

This in itself was an important lesson for me as a parent.

It reminded me of the value of trust between parent and child.


For a child to be honest, first they must trust you


To encourage honesty in our little ones, we must first build trust.

Not only do they need to know they can trust that you will not expose them for being honest (I certainly didn’t let on to her older sibling that she had been ratted out), but they must believe they will not be reprimanded or punished for the act they are confessing.

Here was my middle child, not only willingly confessing to this act, but knowing it might possibly upset her sister (whom she adored and looked up to).

She trusted me to not flip out or storm into bedrooms demanding the lollipops be handed over.

They must believe they will not be reprimanded or punished for the act they are confessing.

After using the excuse of finding the sugar during a bedroom clean-up, I explained to both the girls that what they did was sneaky, but if they promised not to have the lollipop right before meals or after brushing their teeth, then they could keep them.

The proviso was that they would need to be honest in the future.

Was I too lenient?

Should I have confiscated the lollipops?

Probably, and I assure you, the ‘old’ me would have, but I’ve realised that I no longer desire dominance over my children.

Instead, my aim is to guide them to make better choices in the future.


Guide children to make better choices


Our role as adults should be to gently guide our children in their choices allowing opportunities for wrong ones to be made and learnt from.

Guidance can be given at any time.

Talk to your child when:

  • A situation presents itself and must be dealt with at meal times
  • Travelling (in the car or on a bus or train)
  • You notice they don’t seem themselves (they appear sad, quiet or angry) at bedtimes


Why Lie?


Let’s all think back to a time when we were children.

What was the utmost reason for lying?

To avoid being punished, right?

Punishment creates fear and although corporal punishment was much more widely accepted when I was a child, I’m not entirely sure as to whether it created an era of better behaved children or just better liars.

Children want to explore, get up to mischief and make mistakes – it is how they learn.

A study in 2011 by Researchers Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee showed that 3-4 year olds in a disciplinary school had a remarkably higher incidence of lying than those in non-punitive environments.

The study further showed that the group of children who lied more were able to maintain their deception when asked follow up questions, more so than the group who had a lower incidence of lying – proving that not only does punishment foster dishonesty, but it forces us to become better at it.

Talwar and Lee’s research also falls in line with another study conducted at the University of Montenegro and documented in The Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences in September 2014.

It states that:

Punishment doesn’t teach children how to do something properly, on the contrary-they learn how to avoid punishment in the future. Read more

Not only does punishment foster dishonesty, but it forces us to become better at it.

Children are fast learners and regardless of the act they are involved in, the focus should be in guiding children to make the right choices and aiding them in solving difficult situations without the need to lie.

These ‘situations’ should be seen as learning opportunities – to discuss how the child may have handled it better.


If I don’t punish my child, how will they learn right from wrong?


The answer lies in recognising the difference between natural consequence and punishment.

Natural or logical consequence is the outcome directly related to an ill choice made by the child.

Here is how a scenario would play out.

A child is playing inside the house with a ball after being asked to take it outside and subsequently breaks a vase.

The adult would need to explain to the child how the choice to continue playing indoors resulted in the vase breaking.

They would further explain that the child is now responsible for the break and will therefore be expected to use his own money to pay for the replacement of the vase.

What if the child is too young to have his/her own money?

Perhaps the child can complete a household chore to earn the money needed to replace the vase.

It’s a win-win situation.

Not only does the child learn valuable lessons such as responsibility, respect for property and the value of money, but the adult has an extra helping hand about the house.

The natural or logical consequence is the outcome that follows their choice.

It must be related to the act itself.

As adults, we may feel it is our duty to prevent children making wrong choices.

But it is the natural consequences that follow those choices, which teach the child right from wrong, not the punishment later handed down to them.

It is the natural consequences that follow those choices, which teach the child right from wrong

For further information on Natural Consequences, visit the North American Montessori Teacher Training Blog.

So what happened in my own situation?

My daughter was thanked for her honesty and the incident taught her a valuable lesson:

Honesty is welcomed, appreciated and rewarded with trust and understanding.

It’s a give and take.

My children are still children, and they still push the boundaries (that’s their job, right?).

They are not lacking in manners, respect for elders or any other ‘old-fashioned’ values.

On the contrary, they are very quick to fess up to any wrong doings, even when at risk of consequence.

I now look forward to each new challenge as it provides an opportunity to discuss the situation and guide my children into making better choices.

Take Action: 8 Steps to encourage honesty


1. Get down to the child’s level and ensure you have the child’s full attention (away from distractions).

2. Thank the child and let him know you are proud he came to you.

3. Encourage the child to tell the truth, use phrases like, “You’re not in trouble”, “I promise to listen and stay calm”. It is important to let the child know what they can expect from you.

4. Allow the child to tell his story without interruption. For multiple children involved, take turns.

5. Remain calm (do not yell at the child). Remember, they are still learning right from wrong.

6. Encourage empathy for others involved: “How do you think that made your friend feel?”

7. Tell stories of your own childhood, what lessons you learnt and how you dealt with similar situations – kids forget that adults were once children too.

8. Acknowledge any positive choices made and offer suggestions on how the situation could have been handled better.


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