The Secret to Teaching Honesty

See-no-evil350w I am going to tell you a secret today… a secret so profound and life-changing that I hesitate to post it to cyber-space.  If you take this secret to heart, you will see the entire world you live in differently. 


A word of warning, though.  Be prepared to be a changed mom with changed kids, a changed homeschool, and a changed family life.  What secret could have such a global impact, you ask?  You’d be amazed.


First, let’s create a backdrop.  Name the top three character qualities you would like to teach your children.  If I asked 50,000 moms this question, homeschooling or otherwise, we would see a range of answers.  One particular trait, though, would make it to most of those lists.  That trait is honesty. 


Would you agree?  Don’t most of us want our children to grow up telling the truth, loving the good, and turning from any kind of deceit?  I do. 


Great, so we have solved the world’s honor problems, right?  If we all want the same thing for our children, then we all must be teaching them the value of honesty.  If they are learning about honesty, they will ultimately choose lives of honor and truth, right?


Sadly, no. 


Today's adults struggle more and more with basic moral choices, in spite of the character curriculums and Sunday school programs that we participated in when we were younger. 


Children aren’t doing any better.   According to surveys conducted by The Josephson Institute of Ethics, 64% of high school students admitted to cheating in 1996. That number just two years later, jumped to 70%.


Homeschooling parents have a unique challenge here.  We work hard to make sure our kids know right from wrong.  We teach them that dishonesty and all of its associated behaviors, including cheating, are wrong.  But, knowing wrong from right doesn’t always matter.


Eric Anderman is a recognized expert on student cheating and professor of educational policy and leadership at Ohio State University.   In one study, Anderman and his colleagues found that 21 percent of students who say that cheating is "unacceptable" still engage in cheating behaviors.  These kids cheat even when then don’t agree with cheating. 


What causes that kind of schism in young people?  More importantly, how do we prevent that type of flawed thinking in our own children?


This is where the secret comes in.


OK, here it is… ready?


Y O U  N E E D  T O  M O D E L  I T!


Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  I would guess that you are ready to stick a “not too bright” label on my forehead and move on to your other reading.


Please don’t.


As simple as this concept seems in theory, it is NOT simple in practice.  Let’s do a check.  Have you ever:

  • Told your children that their shots won’t hurt?
  • Asked them to tell a caller that you are not at home (when you are?)
  • Said you would be done grocery shopping 'in a minute,' when you still have at least 20 minutes to go?
  • Grandma fell asleep and now she won’t see us anymore.
  • Said the cookies were gone, when you had your own stash in the cabinet?
  • Realized a cashier gave you too much change and not returned it?

As mature adults, we have to make decisions on what our children are ready to hear.  With our more developed judgment, we protect them from situations that may overly tax their emotions or even downright frighten them.  Sometimes, though, our motives aren’t quite so noble.


When we blatantly lie to our children to avoid inconvenience (grocery shopping example,) ask them to lie for us (caller example,) or choose not to rectify passive dishonesty (cashier example,) our children notice that there is no true standard of honesty.  We tell them not to lie, ever.  Then, we show them that we don’t really believe that ourselves. 


Younger children may not be able to verbalize this.  All they do is observe.  As they get older though, they move into the logic stage of learning (dialectic.)  They start to see inconsistencies with alarming clarity.  They are young.   Life is still pretty black and white.  Even if it doesn’t seem like it, they are watching us constantly.  If Mom and Dad do one thing and say another, they’ll pick up on it.  Instead of understanding the nuances that may exist in adult life, their young minds simply see the lie.


Does this mean that we need to be sticklers for exact truth?  Do we need to tell Aunt Martha that we don’t care for the sweater she gave us for Christmas?  Do we tell our children that the neighbors got divorced because the husband was addicted to adult websites?




We really just need to hold our words up to the light of truth.  Are we being less than honest to spare someone’s feelings or to protect their privacy?  If so, we need to explain that to our children in terms that are appropriate for their age.  If we are being dishonest because it is more convenient for us or because of our own selfishness, then we need to weed out that behavior.


Here are some tips on how to handle the above examples:


Not so honest - This won’t hurt.

Better choice - This will likely hurt, but I know that you can be brave and we will get through this together.

Not so honest - Tell them I’m not home.   

Better choice - Please let them know I can’t make it to the phone right now.  I will get back to the later.

Not so honest - We’ll be done in a minute.

Better choice - We have some work to do before we are done.  You are going to need to be patient until then.

Not so honest - Grandma fell asleep.

Better choice - Grandma had an illness which made her heart sick.  Her heart stopped working properly and she’s passed away.  She was a faithful woman and is with God.  We will miss her very much.

Not so honest - The cookies are gone.

Better choice - You may not have any of the cookies right now.  We only have a few left, and I am saving them.

Not so honest - Too much change is their mistake.

Better choice - Look, that cashier gave me too much change.  She may get in trouble for that when her drawer is counted.  I am going to call the store to let them know.  Next time we go to town, I will drop it off.


You may have even better ideas.  If you do, feel free to post them in the comments. 


So, even if we change our own behavior, does this mean our children will never lie?  Of course not.  By checking our own behavior, though, we are able to remove ourselves as the roadblock to honesty.  Our influence on our children is great and comes with great responsibility.  By exercising that responsibility, we cause a ripple effect on the honesty habits of our children.  Not only do our families reap the benefits, but the future does as well.


Just for fun, I have created a FREE bookmark template.  Print it out on cardstock and use it as a reminder to address honesty situations as they arise in your household.  (Explain the monkeys, too!)


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