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 Parenting Press®

Looking at Values:


Parenting Press conducted a poll in March 2000 to ask respondents what values they most desired in children. This is a discussion of one of the top ten values identified.

Thinking About Honesty
Definition: To tell the truth; to live based on truth
Behavior reflecting
the value:
She tells the truth at all times, under every circumstance. She admits to eating the candy, though she knew she was supposed to wait until after dinner. She reports the auto accident exactly as it happened, even if she was at fault. She does not commit verbally to one thing and then do another.
Knowledge and
skills needed:
To be honest, she must be aware of what is happening and remember it accurately. She must be in touch with reality.
Insights about the

To be in touch with reality is a developmental trait. Children younger than five or six have trouble keeping reality separate from what they wish for or what they pretend. They do not yet have the thinking skills to do so. Therefore, to expect young children to be "honest" is unrealistic. They do not understand the concept.

Honesty also takes courage. It is often difficult to recognize and then admit to oneself or to someone else that one did not handle a situation well, or did not do what one should have done. A child can only develop that kind of courage in an atmosphere of trust, where she knows she is safe.

Value present
at birth?

Teaching or Preserving Honesty
Baby: The concept of honesty has no meaning for a baby. At this stage, she is building her concept of the world. It is important for her to experience the world as having structure and routine, where her needs will be met. This will give her a basis on which honesty can be built when she is older.
Toddler/Preschool: To expect honesty of children between age two and six is unrealistic because of their cognitive development. Give your child a sense of what is real and true, and give her something to build on as she grows by reviewing a situation for her---you do have to provide the review. This is why parents and teachers of toddlers and preschoolers need to stay aware of everything, how the play is going, who is doing what, and so on, because the children cannot give us accurate information when things go wrong. They cannot yet differentiate between the real and the imagined, between what happened and what they wish happened.
School age/Teenage:

Children at this age are able to tell the difference between what happened and what they wish had happened. You have a unique role to play in helping her face reality and tell the truth. There are several challenges.

Follow her activities enough to know what is going on and when she is telling the truth or not. During the teenage years this can be very difficult because so much of what teens do is out of the home. Two things to do are keep in touch with other parents and know what her school expects of her.

Another challenge is to be sure to take time to listen carefully to and understand her side of an issue. Do not make threats of punishment so severe that she is afraid to tell the truth. Also, be sure to let a child who is lying know that she is still loved and cherished even though she is lying, and that you expect her to change and start telling the truth. Be careful not to label her a liar because labels promote the behavior they describe.

Influences on Learning Honesty
Needs: The drive to meet most needs can interfere with a person's ability to be honest. A starving person may steal food and lie about doing so. She may lie to protect herself or a friend from harm or to protect her own or a friend's self-esteem. In many situations it takes courage to be honest, which is perhaps why the two qualities are so often linked.
Temperament: No relevance.
Learning style: Some children have poor memories: they either do not remember what happened or remember it inaccurately. These children need special protection and gentle reminding of what did occur. For a parent or a teacher to call such a child a liar is to accuse her unfairly.

Reflections about Honesty
Influence of other
Raw, straightforward honesty can get in the way of a caring response or cooperative effort. Uncle Joe might not be destitute if he had handled his money more wisely, but her telling him so does not show a caring concern for his well-being, even if it is honest. Likewise, reminding someone she did not cooperate on the last project is not going to get her to cooperate on a new project; better to keep it in mind and help the group of which she is a part organize the new project with clearer expectations.
New thinking
resulting from

In analyzing being honest, it is evident that the value is more complex than a simple answer of this or that happened, this person did this or that. Caring for the well-being of someone else or seeking to build a cooperative effort may mean using knowledge of the truth to do something differently, without stating the truth or accusing someone else.

Knowing that your child has smoked marijuana or is sexually active may mean that what is important is protecting her and stating your concern for her, rather than getting her to admit to you what she has done. She does not need to acknowledge unsafe activity in order to accept help and protection from you. In this case, the goal of keeping your child safe may conflict with your value of honesty.

Adapted from Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire by Harriet Heath, Ph.D.

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Last updated May 05, 2008