What is a Lie? A Parenting Dilemma About Teaching Children Honesty

Teaching Children Not to Lie

An online friend recently posted a moral dilemma. Caught in a lie and fearing consequences, her young nephew fought back with the logic of a “surprise” trip to Walt Disney World the family had planned.

“But Aunt Polly lies about taking us to Disney,” he said. “And she doesn’t get in trouble.”


And therein lies the dilemma. Teaching children honesty, when our own definition of what is and isn’t a lie can seem like shifting sand. How can we practice what we preach to our children? And do we need to?

When is a Lie a Lie?

Identifying a lie reminds me of an old definition of obscenity offered by a former Supreme Court justice: “I know it when I see it.” Falsehoods, fibbing, blatant deceit – we all recognize the big ugly lies.

But what about telling Dad the thing in the shopping bag is just a toy for the kids and not the drill he wanted for his birthday? Or sneaking vegetables into little sister’s macaroni and cheese without telling her? Aren’t those lies, too? And let’s not even get into “white lies,” like praising your friend’s awful new shirt.

Given that as parents we want lead by example, what can we do when it comes to teaching our children honesty?

Honest Conversation

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education produced this video asking children to define a lie, and offering advice to parents on teaching honesty. The kids’ attempts to answer the question “what is a lie?” are funny, but also telling.

Admitting to a lie is hard – for everyone.

The webpage that accompanies the video encourages parents to teach honesty by modeling it for them. We should be mindful of ourselves and take note when our own actions don’t fit the message we want to convey.

I think some of this comes down to having candid, age-appropriate conversations with our children. My husband and I try to encourage our young son to trust us with the truth so that he doesn’t have to fear coming to us. That dialogue becomes even more important when kids get older and problems get bigger.

For now, talking through our expectations helps clear up any confusion kids have as they learn these important concepts. If we define the behavior we want to see, and model it as best we can, our children will understand what’s expected of them.

And when the expectations are clear, we can still have our little surprises.

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