Teaching Children to Be Honest

“Teaching Children to Be Honest,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, 27

Handbook for Families

Teaching Children to Be Honest

We believe in being honest. …” (A of F 1:13.) So begins our last article of faith. But what does “being honest” mean? Does it simply mean refraining from cheating, stealing, and lying? Or does it go beyond these fundamentals? Does it not also include being truthful, shunning gossip, obeying traffic laws, following through on promises, and avoiding deception of any kind?

Because honesty encompasses such a wide range of actions—indeed, because it is one of the basics of a Christlike character—it is important that we teach our children to be honest. President N. Eldon Tanner has said that “this training in honesty begins in the home. … A child who respects such honesty in the home is not apt to violate the principle outside the home.” (Ensign, Apr. 1978, p. 44.)


The basis for any teaching is example. If children see parents who are honest in all their dealings—even if it is inconvenient—they will come to sense the importance of being honest. But if parents are honest only in the “big” things—not telling blatant lies or stealing, for example—their children will learn only that honesty is a set of behaviors to avoid, not a character trait to be cultivated. As parents, we need to be models of honesty and integrity, even in difficult or “tempting” situations.

One schoolteacher recalls teaching a young man who loved to go skiing. He missed several days of school to participate in the sport, always coming to school the next day sunburned and excited to talk with the teacher about his adventures. At the end of the quarter, when it appeared his absences might hurt his grade, the boy’s mother sent the teacher a note, saying he had been sick on those days. What is this mother teaching about honesty?

In contrast, one woman describes the positive example of her father: “My Dad was a bishop for seven years while I was a teenager. Recently I have met several people from that ward who have told me that Dad counseled with them about problems they were having. I did not know that these people had even seen my father, let alone that they had any kind of problem. This experience has given me an increased appreciation for my father’s integrity in keeping confidences. It has helped me want to be more diligent in keeping my word.”

What example do your children see? Do they hear you promise to do your home or visiting teaching, then see you back out of it or do it with a grumbling attitude? Do you participate in gossip sessions? Do you have your children tell someone at the door that you are not home?

Respect for Self and Others

As effective and vital as a good example is in teaching honesty, it isn’t enough. Parents also need to teach children to value the principle of honesty. Dishonesty in all its forms is a type of deception. And deception always hurts others. One way, then, to teach children to be honest is to teach them to respect themselves and others.

Showing respect in the home is probably the most effective way to help children learn to respect others. Home ought to be a place where children can fail (accepting consequences if necessary) and still feel loved. Knowing that we love them and that we expect the best of them, children will not feel that they have to “prove” themselves to us. They will not feel such a pressure to perform that they resort to dishonesty.

Another way to teach respect is to discuss hypothetical situations as a family, concentrating on how actions may affect another person. You might ask them how mother would feel if Jeff took money from her purse. Or how a friend would feel if she heard that Nicole had sat silently in a group who was ridiculing her. Or how Mary’s boyfriend would feel if he found she was dating him just to say she had a boyfriend.

Although some acts of dishonesty obviously hurt others, other acts may seem to have no effect on anyone else. “What difference will it make if I tell my piano teacher that I practiced this week? I’ll make it up next week.” To a child, this reasoning may sound perfectly logical, and the consequences may be either invisible or unimportant. But a child who respects himself will see that lying about his piano practice will only hurt him in the long run, even if he can get away with it. In these situations, children need to know that honesty is a vital characteristic of a Christlike person, that if we choose to be dishonest, we separate ourselves from our Father in Heaven.

The Problem of Lying

When we discover our child has been untruthful, often our first impulse is to accuse him. “I know you’re lying, now tell me the truth!” This type of accusation weakens respect and only leads to more lies. Before a child feels safe enough to confess that he has lied, he needs to feel confident that we will still love and accept him. If we continually show love and appreciation, it will be easier for our children to avoid lying and to admit it if they do.

If a child does admit to a lie, we should forgive him and forget about it. If we label a child a liar, consistently reminding him of times he has lied in the past, or if we ask suspiciously if what he tells us is the truth, we will further erode any respect we may have in our relationship.

This does not mean we should let children get away with lying. If we know for sure that a child has been untruthful, we can tell him matter-of-factly, without anger or frustration, that we know he is lying. We can tell him we are disappointed and then discuss how the problem can be solved. We can explain that he will feel better for having told the truth, and that we want to trust and help him.

If we don’t know for sure that the child is lying, then an accusation will do more harm than good. One mother explained how she dealt with this problem. “It is impossible for me to guess which child may have spilled a box of cereal, marked with crayons on the wall, or pulled all the things out of the cabinet. When questioned, each blamed the other, and I felt such incidents, unmentioned, would promote the attitude of ‘anything goes if I don’t get caught.’ I was becoming concerned over dishonesty, and wondered whether I was being so harsh with punishment that they were afraid to tell the truth. We worked out a system in which a lie received a greater punishment than any deed they would admit.” (Ensign, Mar. 1975, p. 45.)

The Problem of Stealing

Many children, especially young children, take things that do not belong to them. Often their intention is not to do wrong, but simply to have something they like. In any case, if a child has something that does not belong to him, he should return it. He can either return it himself or his parents can go with him. If the child is small and simply doesn’t understand the principle of honesty, our discipline may consist simply of returning the object and explaining the principle to him. If, however, he does understand that he should not steal, the consequences may have to be more severe.

“As parents we cannot force our children to be honest. Honesty, like every other virtue, must come from within. It grows inside a child through teachings, experience, suffering the consequences when necessary, and by example. But as parents we can give our children a constant opportunity to be honest by providing a family atmosphere built on honesty through close, trusting relationships and by teaching honesty in both word and action.” (Ensign, Aug. 1977, p. 19.)

Photography by Michael M. McConkie