The truth is, lying is pretty common in young children—yes, even in precious toddlers! After all, their rapidly developing brains are just starting to grasp the difference between what’s real and what’s make-believe. So, what’s a lie to you might simply be pretend fun to them. But that doesn’t mean your toddler is too little to start learning the value of honesty. Quite the contrary! Planting the seeds of good character early is actually the best way to cultivate an honest and moral kiddo down the road. Here, some honesty lessons to grow on!

Read these types of books to teach honesty.

Because children’s books are often punctuated with a moral, they can be great tools for side-dooring honesty lessons to your tot. (Side-door lessons allow parents to get big-picture ideas across to children, without little ones feeling lectured to.) The key, however, is that the book needs to highlight the positive effect of honesty (like “George Washington and the Cherry Tree”) not the negative consequences of lying (like “Pinocchio”). Only the former increases truth-telling in 3- to 7-year-olds, according to a study in the journal Psychological ScienceThe moral of this story? Always lead with the good, not the bad to inspire the same behavior in your own child.

Share fairy tales about honesty, too.

You don’t always need a book to tell a story. Take a page from ye ol’ fairy tales to teach your own customizable honesty lessons. (Remember, these kinds of side-door strategies are way more successful than soapboxing to a toddler.) First step: Lure in your tot with lots (and lots) of descriptive words illustrating what the main character of your story is doing and feeling:

When Sophie heard her tummy grumble as loud as a lion, she wondered what on Earth could be happening! Did she swallow a toy train? Could she be hungry? With that, the little girl tiptoed into the dark kitchen to find a yummy treat.

In no time flat, your tot will be all ears!

Sophie stood on her tippity toes, reached high, and discovered a delicious brownie on the table. What luck! Suddenly, she grabbed the goodie and—poof!—it was in her belly in an instant!

Next comes the honesty dilemma:

Sophie’s dad enters the kitchen and sees that the brownie is missing! He asks: Do you know what happened to the brownie? Sophie feels bad and does not want to make daddy upset. Should she say the dog ate it? Should she pretend she never saw the brownie?

Finally, the moral. Here’s where your problem is solved, and everyone lives happily ever after. In Sophie’s case, she tells her daddy that she took the brownie and that she is sorry.

Thank you so much for being honest, honey! I was worried that Sparky ate it. If you didn’t tell the truth, I would’ve had to rush him to the doggy doctor!

Notice there’s no finger-wagging at the end of the tale. The goal of the story is to prompt honesty, not to scold for a misdeed.

Demonstrate honesty yourself. 

While you might not always feel like the smartest, coolest, most put-together person in the room, your toddler truly thinks you are...and that’s why they want to copy-cat everything you do! So why not give them something positive, like honesty, to imitate? That means consciously skipping over everyday fibs (I don’t have any money for the ice cream truck) and opting for the truth instead (You’ve already had a treat, so no ice cream today).

Same goes for the untruths your child may overhear, like the We already have plans or I signed the petition earlier. While always being honest can certainly get sticky at times, if you’re not, you can send mixed messages to a toddler, whose brain is not ready to grasp any polite exceptions to the rules. In fact, research shows that it’s not until kids are 7 years old (though possibly as early as 5) that they start to have a practical understanding of the effect of the appropriate use of white lies, like sparing Nana’s feelings when she gives you an ugly sweater. 

Be an honesty detective.

It’s easy to catch a toddler in a lie since, well, they’re pretty bad at it. (You: Did you draw on the wall? Toddler: No. Meanwhile your main suspect is holding a Sharpie and has red squiggles all over their chest.) But if your goal is to highlight the importance of honesty, you gotta start sleuthing for instances when your tot has made a good choice and told the truth. That means, when your tot confesses to breaking a toy, tells you they ate the last cookie, or divulges that, yes, they did in fact swipe SNOObear from their brother, you meet their honesty with genuine praise: I’m really happy you decided to tell me the truth.

Take it a step further, and comment on other people’s honesty when your toddler is in earshot, too. For instance, if your friend says they’re not up for getting together tomorrow or your partner tells you that you’ve got salad in your teeth, say: Thanks for being honest! I appreciate it! These types of casual overheard comments easily side-door the honesty-is-important lessons to your kiddo.

Invite the truth.

If you know that your toddler spilled the milk, pulled the cat’s tail, or put their carrots in the garbage can, don’t ask if they did it! You’re practically begging them to lie to you. Why?

Toddler’s brains are still too immature to understand that lying as a moral choice, notes experts at the Cleveland Clinic. That means, when your toddler lies, it’s often a response to you seeming upset. Your kiddo doesn’t want you to be mad! They fib so everything will be okay again. Instead, focus on ways to tackle the situation. For example, if you see your toddler standing in a puddle, trade: Did you have an accident? for We’ve got a mess here! Let’s get you cleaned up. By focusing on the fix, your tot is allowed to save face, which will encourage honesty next go-round. 

For even more advice about how to plant seeds of good character in your toddler, check out “Happiest Toddler on the Block."

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