How to Raise Honest Children

'Honesty is the best policy'. Here’s a comprehensive view on raising honest children.

By Akshaya Ganesh

How to Raise Honest Children

At various points of time in our lives we have had to meet a ford; a ford where we had to decide between being honest and face the repercussions, or lying and choosing the escape route. How have you handled this situation? And, how often have you chosen to be honest and brave the odds?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, an honest individual is ‘always telling the truth, and never stealing or cheating’. Oftentimes, we’ve heard our parents, teachers and peers tell us how honesty is the best policy. But with the increasing competition and decreasing room at the top, our children may face this ford at every step in their lives. Says Aparna Balasundaram, a parenting expert, who is also the co-founder and chief service officer of the Lighthouse Organisation, “Given the environment we are in today, and with access to different things, there is a temptation for children to act in other ways instead of honesty. That is why it is important for children to imbibe honesty and adopt it in their day-to-day life.” Therefore, as parents, you need to guide your children and help them embrace honesty as it can lead them to everlasting peace, success, and happiness.

Honesty and success

Honesty is a state of being, it is ingrained in children. However, many young children tend to lie because of their inability to differentiate between reality and imagination as their cognitive abilities aren’t fully developed. For example, your child may state that his friend has given him a bar of chocolate and stick to it even if his friend hasn’t given it to him. This is because he believes it to be the truth and is unable to determine that he is lying. So, as a parent, be polite and lay down rules at the outset. Explain to him that taking a bar of chocolate from the store without anyone’s knowledge is not accepted. Or, tell him that you would be upset if you realise that he lied to you. At this age, children need to be clearly told what is unacceptable as their cognitive ability is only still developing.

When it comes to older children, due to reasons like peer pressure, fear and laziness, children may take to lying as a way to escape. This does not mean that children are liars. As parents, we need to help children understand that the success they achieve without honesty, will never last long. Says Abhijith Muthanna, CTO, Emerging and Greater China, Nielsen, and one among the 27 successful people we interviewed, “My parents always encouraged me to take education seriously and to be honest, no matter how hard it may seem. They emphasised that, in the long run, honesty always outweighed any short-term benefit.”

Some time ago, for a special edition of our magazine, we went around India and connected with 27 renowned personalities to understand their secret for success. We asked them what values they learnt from their parents that helped them become successful in life. And, not surprisingly, more than 50 percent of them stated that honesty and integrity are key contributors to their success.

Six ways to help children embrace honesty

This quote from the famous American author and motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, reinstates the importance of honesty when it comes to success – “Honesty and integrity are absolutely essential for success in life - all areas of life. The really good news is that anyone can develop both honesty and integrity.”

So, here's how to help your child embrace honesty so that he achieves the success that gives him everlasting peace and joy:

  1. Read or narrate moral stories: Moral stories that praise characters for being honest are a great way to teach children about honesty, according to ‘Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?’, a study published in Psychological Science. The study states that moral stories that praise characters’ honesty are more effective in teaching children about honesty than ones that talk about the repercussions of lying. There are several stories of Akbar and Birbal and Raja Harischandra that you can read to your child to help him understand why being honest is an important stepping stone for peace and success in life.
  2. Be a role model: For many children, parents serve as their first role models, with many often following the footsteps of their parents. Therefore, as a parent, remember that your child is always watching you. Every time you speak the truth about something in front of your child, he too learns to embrace the value. Says Aparna, “Parents are the best role models. Instead of speaking about it, the best way for parents to teach children about honesty is to model it.”
  3. Don’t be a strict disciplinarian: Yes, disciplining your child is important. But you do not always have to be strict and punish him if he goes wrong. This will only make him find ways to avoid your scolding. According to an article titled ‘Punishing Kids for Lying Only Makes Them Lie More’, published in TIME, a study conducted by researchers from McGill University found that children who are reprimanded for lying are more likely to bend the truth. However, children who are given a moral reason for truth-telling believe that honesty is the best policy. So, instead of punishing him, consider sitting down with him and having a chat about honesty and the repercussions he would face if he lies.
  4. Praise your child: For your child to embrace honesty, you must appreciate him and praise him for being honest. Directly praise your child by saying something like - ”It took courage to say the truth. You make me proud that you are an honest child”. This way he feels valued and good about himself for being honest. It also makes him feel happy for doing the right thing, therefore giving him peace. According to the TIME article, the study from McGill University also states that children are more likely to tell the truth if it pleases an adult.
  5. Avoid labelling your child: If you realise that your child is lying to you, do not immediately label him a liar. Labelling your child can affect him psychologically. Says Aparna, “Children are looking for love and respect from parents. Any kind of negative labelling by parents can be perceived by children as being judgemental. Yes, it is important for parents to correct wrong behaviour, but you can be firm yet loving and respectful at the same time.”
  6. Games and activities: Games and activities are a fun way to teach children values. Not only do they keep children entertained, they also help them remember things better because of the experience. For example, imagine that you and your child are playing snakes and ladders and he rolls a one. Assuming you aren’t watching, he rolls again and gets five. Then, he moves five steps only to meet a snake. While the one would have led him to a ladder. At this point, look at him and tell him how he met with a snake because he was dishonest. He rolled again because he assumed that you weren’t watching, but the truth was that he rolled a one. If he had accepted it, he would have climbed the ladder, but because of his dishonesty, he’s now having to meet the snake.

Tall tales and white lies

As individuals, we are all constantly telling white lies. But, what we don’t realise is that our kids are watching. To your child, it may seem that you are lying and being dishonest, because that is what you have taught him. But, how do you make him understand that white lies are acceptable?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a white lie is defined as, ‘a harmless or small lie, especially one that you tell to avoid hurting somebody’. Making children understand white lies is the same as making them understand the use of tact. Sit down with your child and explain to him how sometimes being too honest can hurt someone’s feelings and that he should consider this before speaking the truth. For example, your child’s friend has bought a brand-new bling red colour cycle and comes home to visit your child. He’s visibly excited about his new buy and asks your child how it looks. In this situation, explain to your child that it is okay for him to say that it looks good, even if he doesn’t agree, because stating the truth might hurt his friend. Also, just because he lies to his friend, it won’t cause his friend any harm. That’s why it is a white lie, and it is okay to use it every now and then.

As a word of caution, remember to tell your child that he should understand the situation and then take a call about a white lie. Remind him that a lie that hurts someone is never good, and thus should not be uttered.

Honesty is the best policy

Honesty is a value that will help your child throughout his life. It’s the first step towards success. Being honest will earn your child the trust and respect of others. And these networks will further help your child on the path of success because they believe in him. However, while you teach your child about being honest, remember to teach him how to be tact in certain situations. Talk to him and explain how different settings work differently and teach him to consider people’s emotions when he decides to honest about something. For example, if his friend asks him if she looks fat, there is no harm in him telling her that she doesn’t, because it won’t hurt her, nor does he benefit from the lie. It is a neutral effect.

As parents, we need to be patient to see the results. The journey to success may be long and hard, but adopting honesty will make your child feel fully satisfied with the successes he tastes in life. This quote from the former First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, sums up the path to success – “We learned about honesty and integrity - that the truth matters... that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules... and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square.”

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