Parenting: Dealing with Lying, Part II: Promoting Honesty
By Jonathan D. Sherman, LMFT

First, let us review the important distinction between discipline and punishment.

Discipline v. Punishment

Fear of being punished is one of the main reasons for lying. And, hey, let’s face it, it works sometimes and if it is the “lesser of two evils” the child will pick lying. In our adult thinking we assume that children will understand why they are being punished and thus will stop lying. As odd as it may seem to adults, children’s interpretation of punishment is usually not that they learn to stop lying but rather that they are getting punished because they got caught. Thus they learn to be more sneaky, not necessarily more truthful. This is the reason for the emphasis on discipline instead of punishment. Discipline teaches what we want our children to learn: responsibility and being honest for the right reasons. Punishment creates fear and fear is the least effective means for creating intrinsically motivated change.

Using discipline to teach honesty is accomplished through the use of the natural or logical consequences that go along with dishonest behavior. Most punishment is not related to the actual act of lying. Instead it is frequently designed to send the message that the child is bad, thinking this will help the child learn. Think of the last time someone pointed their finger in your face and scolded, lectured or criticized you. How open and receptive were you towards them. How much did you really listen and consider their message?

When we allow our child to experience the logical or natural consequences that are directly related to the inappropriate behavior we send the message to our child that “You are a good person who is doing something wrong. Through discipline, I will help teach you what you need to learn. Also, I believe that you can and will learn from this because you are smart and good.” We may still show some resistence when people come to us genuinely showing they care about how we feel, as well as how we act, but we are also more open to the teaching. This works with children and adults simply because relationship principles work with people.

The 3 R’s of Discipline

There are 3 R’s to remember in structuring effective discipline. Is the discipline Related, Reasonable and Respectful? If so, more often than not it will be instructive and effective.

Related. Related means that if my child repeatedly lies that he has no homework then the discipline would be related to demonstrating what homework there is and what needs to be done and then requiring that he complete it each day after school. Just grounding him carte blanche is not specifically related. Work at strategies that restore trust. For example, many of the kids I work with have regained their parents trust about getting their homework done by bringing a note home from their teacher each day.

Reasonable. “You’re grounded for life” is neither reasonable nor possible. Being reasonable is to make the consequence fit the crime. Not more (too harsh) and not less (too soft) but just right. Children can forget the reason for the consequence when the consequence drags out too long, but do let your child know that there will definitely be consequences

Respectful. Being respectful involves keeping the focus on the child. Remember that we learn from mistakes and that mistakes can be corrected. The child’s decisions and behavior are a problem, but the child is essentially okay. Respect keeps our children’s self-esteem stay intact and thus they are able to feel remorse and guilt for inappropriate behavior instead developing shame about themselves as a person. For example, telling your child how you feel about their lie can be both respectful and effective. Sharing with them how it hurt that he or she lied to you can be more effective than no TV for the week. Also, by focusing on the effect of the lie on other people promotes honesty by helping to develop an internal sense of right and wrong.
People often violate the three R’s simply because they decide consequences while they are upset and angry. Take some time to cool off and think it through. Let your child know you will need some time before you make a decision. And then when you have calmed down you can present your decision in a way that will help promote honesty via the three R’s.

Seeking Help When Lying is a Serious Problem

Lying can be a serious problem when it becomes a habit, a compulsion, is used as a main coping strategy, or when children do not feel remorse for lying. When lying is accompanied by stealing, skipping class, being cruel, fighting, or cheating it can indicate more serious problems like a learning disability or a conduct disorder. Children with ADHD sometimes have more difficulty controlling their lying. Lies may also be used to conceal substance abuse or other serious problems.

Most of the time lying can be addressed in the home. However, if you are concerned about the frequency of your child’s lying or if you are concerned that you child is covering up a serious problem you could benefit from seeking the help of a qualified professional. Counseling can often assist the family where a child is lying habitually, is lying as a cry for attention, is lying because they have learned it in the home, is lying to conceal difficulties at school (with peers or with academics), to protect themselves from harm, or where significant trust has been damaged in the family because of the lies. Be sure to select a therapist who has training and experience in working with children (including adolescents) and families. The counselor will then be able to directly assist your family or refer you to those qualified to do so.

Remember, most of the time childhood lying does not lead to pathological lying. Lying is a natural stage children go through as they learn the importance of, and benefits of, telling the truth. However, we do not want to just gloss over lying as just a normal part of childhood. Learning to deal with lying effectively will help us teach our children the value of honesty in their lives.

Watch future columns for more strategies for creating greatness in your relationships. Have you tried these or other suggestions in the Greatness in Relationships column? Let me know how it worked at You can find more articles and tips at

Jonathan Sherman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Relationship Consultant specializing in creating "greatness in relationships." He is experienced in assisting people learn to improve their marriages, their parenting and themselves through skill development, life coaching, overcoming depression and anxiety, stress and anger management, and addiction recovery. He teaches extensively on a wide range of relationship topics. He is the founder of Bardos Relationship Consulting. He is married to a skillled husband trainer who has truly earned her keep. They live in eternal bliss (okay, fairly peaceably) with their four children in American Fork, UT. You may reach him at 801.787.8014, or at
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This article provided courtesy of Bardos Relationship Consulting• 801.787.8014 •