It Wasn’t Me: How to Handle Your Child’s Dishonesty

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Awhile back, I posted about some research done on lying in children.  A very brief explanation of the study was that kids lied more often and more effectively when punishment was on the line.  Because so many children go through a lying phase, or more than a phase, I am writing this post to talk about ways to consider and deal with dishonesty.

Let’s first think about why lying gets under our skin so terribly.  Well, as parents we know that honesty is critical to healthy relationships, to having integrity, and to resolving problems.  Dishonesty can land you in a heap of interpersonal, academic, legal, and/or professional trouble both in the present and in the future and nobody wants that for their kids.

Now let’s look at our goals in confronting our child’s dishonesty.  First, we want to know the truth and we want for our kids to be able to readily share it.  Second, we want for our children to be able to make amends when their behavior affects somebody else, not skirt around the truth and try to get out of taking responsibility for it.  Third, we want for our children to be able to learn from their mistakes.  If they cannot be honest about those mistakes, then the learning is also lost.  You can probably add a lot of other goals to this list.  For this post, I’ll focus on the three above.

Okay, so how can we approach lying while keeping those three goals in mind?  Let’s start with the first goal: obtaining the truth.  This one simply takes a good dose of common sense.  If our kids fear us, fear being punished, fear the lecture, etc., then they will be less likely to come clean.  In Parenting with Love & Logic, the authors talk about the mistake parents make by stating that the child will be better off for telling the truth and then promptly punishing the child once the truth is told (p. 198-199).  Lesson learned: do not tell the truth.  Instead, parents can invite the child to tell the truth and rather than going bananas about whatever that truth is, they can instead thank the child for telling the truth, acknowledge that it was probably difficult to tell it, and then move on to the second goal: making amends.

Now I’ll get to amends in a moment, but I wanted to stay on goal one for a moment because there are likely going to be times that your child simply presses on with a lie.  Oftentimes, this happens because your child has been placed in a situation where he may feel compelled to lie, something Ginott referred to as “provoked lying” (p. 65-71).  Here are some things to consider: accusatory tones, statements, and/or questions will likely result in the lie being defended.  The why’s, how could you’s, and what were you thinking’s can pretty much assure us that our children would rather we didn’t know the truth.  

And one more thing to consider here: if you know the truth please don’t pretend that you don’t.  It is more productive for everyone if you simply state the truth and then move on to the second goal of making amends.  For example, your child comes to you with finger paint on her shirt and you say, “How did that finger paint get on your shirt?!”  Is she likely to respond in the same way as she would had you said matter-of-factly, “You got finger paint on your shirt.  What are you going to do about that?”  You get the idea.

 Now on to making amends.  Here is an opportunity for children to take responsibility for their behavior and it can be done in a way that puts the onus on the child for making a situation right.  How many of us have said these words to our child, “Now say you’re sorry”?  And then what do we usually get?  The empty apology, the humiliated apology, the resentment-filled apology, or some other type of sorry that just does not help in the character-building realm.  Here is another way to approach the situation: “Okay, so you broke the picture frame when you were throwing the ball in the house.  You were probably pretty worried about what I would do when I found out.  Well, how can you make this situation better?”  Having the child come up with and execute a plan can oftentimes yield surprising results.  And if the child struggles to come up with a plan, then you can make a simple offer.  “Let me know if you would like some help coming up with ideas.”  This approach allows your child to remain in the driver’s seat (because we do ultimately want them to be the ones to take responsibility) while also having a wise resource to tap: you.

Putting together goal one and goal two, we have met goal three: learning (and learning the messages that we really want them to learn).  We have allowed our child the opportunity to learn that telling the truth is beneficial and that mistakes can be made and remedied.  True, our behaviors may have consequences that cannot be undone, but at least we will be putting our child on the path of doing everything that he can think of to make things better.

One last thing: when you have a moment to connect with your child after the lying dust has settled it can be a good idea to have a heart-to-heart.  This is a good time to again commend your child for telling the truth and for talking about why honesty is important as well as some of the reasons that people lie.  This talk can be a way to help your child understand himself a little more as well as not feel that something is inherently wrong with him.  As always, this talk does not mean lecture.  It means having a talk something like this:

“I want to tell you again how proud I am that you told me the truth about losing my watch.  I know that I can go pretty bonkers when you lose my things and I can definitely freak out when I find out that you have not been honest with me.  That took some serious courage! 

“As someone that loves you very much, I need to say something to you about telling the truth.  I know how important it is to be honest with people so they can trust you and help you when you need it.  I get why it’s hard sometimes to tell me what really happened.  There’s the bonkers factor, for one, and lots of kids have that same fear about their parents.  They also sometimes feel really embarrassed or upset and don’t think that they can make up for what they did so they don’t want anyone to find out.  I promise that I will do my best to not lose it when you tell me about something not so great that you did and I really hope that you’ll feel more okay about telling me about what’s going on.”

Thanks for reading!  -Anita


Cline, F. & Fay, J. (2006). Parenting with love & logic: Teaching children responsibility (updated and expanded ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Pinon Press.

Ginott, H.G. (2003). Between parent and child: The bestselling classic that revolutionized parent-child communication (revised and updated ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press.