The secret to raising honest kids

Ask a group of twenty parents what they most want for their children, and the answers will be as unique as the parents polled.

Some value great success.  Some, strong character. Some, vibrant faith. And the list goes on.

But you’d be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn’t work hard to raise kids who are honest. Kids who are truth-tellers.  Kids who know how to listen to that internal voice of conviction and respond accordingly.

It’s no wonder then, that a question I most often get asked when I speak about parenting, sounds something like this:

“How can we raise kids who confess mistakes willingly and seek forgiveness sincerely?”

While our first or natural instinct as parents might be to increase the threat of punishment when we suspect our children aren’t being honest, research (reported in Nurture Shock) actually reveals that “increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of punishment don’t lie less. Instead they become better liars, at an earlier age — learning to get caught less often.”

The threat of punishment doesn’t create truth-tellers. It fosters better liars. And more importantly, it fails to invite children to assess how their words and actions impact others, an essential skill for maintaining healthy relationships.

So what’s a parent to do?

The first and most important thing we can do is this: We go first.

We must remember that we serve as a model for what it looks like to live an authentic and vulnerable life.

If we want to raise honest kids, we must allow our kids to see the “realness” of who we are.  Rather than presenting our most perfect selves to our children, trying to cover up our mistakes and failures, we must confess them and seek forgiveness for them.

Being an authentic and vulnerable parent means we are willing to say the nine hardest words to our children: I am sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.

Now I know some parents fear that if they allow their children to see their weaknesses—if they are authentic with their kids—their children may not respect them as they ought. But it’s quite the contrary.

When we are honest and authentic with our children about our own failures, they will actually begin to understand the power of God’s forgiveness through our example. They will see, in us, the peace that comes from knowing that we are free to confess our failure because it has already been forgiven in the cross of Christ.

So often our kids want to be honest, but shame over their decision or fear of punishment or disappointing us interferes.

The problem is our children cannot fully appreciate what holding onto lies does to their hearts.  So they try to cover up their failure, thinking this will be the easier way out. And they forget that even when we may not know of their wrongdoing, God does. Ultimately, they are accountable to him. So we want our children to feel inclined to confess their failure because they can trust there is a Savior who has already forgiven it.

And, if your children know that it is not their “perfection” that pleases you, but their willingness to confess their mistakes and learn from them, they will be more motivated to tell the truth, even if it’s a painful truth. 

For example, our boys were recently fighting over who punched who first, and who said what mean thing to who last. When I found them fighting in the yard, they all had different stories. 

So I did everything I know I’m not supposed to do.  I threatened to take things away.  I got mad.  I demanded the truth.  And of course, none of that worked. They continued to argue and point fingers.  Until… I stopped focusing on getting an immediate, outward, behavioral response and was willing to do the harder, but much more effective, “heart-work” with them.

I said, “Boys, I want you to be honest so you don’t carry the guilt that comes with lying. And I want you to remember that whatever you did wrong has already been forgiven and paid for in Jesus. Ask God to give you a heart that desires honesty. You are free to tell the truth.  Each and every one of us makes mistakes each and every day. This is not a house of perfection, but confession.”

I am by no means suggesting that this is a formula that “works” every time, but I can assure you, it most often spurs my children to confess that which fear or shame was preventing them from disclosing.

This also doesn’t mean they don’t receive consequences.  Of course they do.  Our children must learn that there is, and always will be, consequences to their actions — whether they be good consequences for good decisions or painful consequences for poor choices. 

But we must remember that fear of punishment will never help our children become truth-telling kids who live authentic lives, especially when it’s difficult.

Raising kids who feel free to confess their imperfection begins with parents who are willing to confess theirs.  We go first.

Jeannie Cunnion is the author of “Parenting the Wholehearted Child,” and a blogger at She has a Master’s degree in Social Work, and her background combines counseling, writing, and speaking about parenting and adoption issues. Jeannie and her husband, Mike, are the proud parents of three wild and awesome boys.

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