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How White Lies Undermine Teaching our Children Honesty

Written by Bethany Todd, in Collaboration with Laura Barr


A white lie is defined as a harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  However, I don’t believe that a lie can be harmless.

Nick Galifianakis, a cartoonist for the Washington Times enlightened me with his recent cartoon in which two young kids are looking at an adult. The caption reads, “What they mean is, the appearance of honesty is the best policy.” Through this cartoon,  Galifianakis shared an unfortunately honest portrait of what adults are modeling and communicating to young children; that white lies are okay some times.

Our children are so much more aware than we wish they were. They are tuning into all our adult conversations, tones, and arguments. Children know that a little lie is still a lie. They learn how we use white lies to make ourselves look better, or keep the peace. They are also learning that they don’t always have to be honest, and that being polite is  sometimes more important than honesty.

This is a problem.

A recent study shows that as kids get comfortable with little lies, their lies getting bigger and become a habit of deception. University of Massachusetts psychology and brain sciences professor, Robert Feldman, stated that people are more convincing liars with practice and that that there is danger in “tolerating small, white lies” because they escalate. Small white lies can sometimes lead to a lifestyle of deception in which honesty is not valued or upheld.


Why is honesty important?

Honesty is important because it…

  • Builds trusting relationships
  • Eases anxiety and guilt
  • Mends relationships
  • Promotes peace
  • Builds character
  • Considers others
  • Is required for personal awareness and growth

Setting children up to lie

According to Psychology Today, parents often set their children up to lie. This happens when parents issue big threats, which, in turn, make children become scared to tell the truth. Children fear talking to us. This is a problem when kids need help working through a difficult situation or are trying to understand something new. On the other hand, when parents demonstrate that they are a safe presence, children feel like they can be honest with them. It is important for parents to guide and nurture their children when things are hard.  Let’s consider how our immediate reactions can impact how are children communicate with us. (And remember, you can model honesty by admitting when you’re wrong).


What about being polite?

Do you know that situation when a young child is brutally honest, making observations about people or the world around them? We cringe because we know it isn’t polite, but coming from a young child people usually enjoy the honesty and even find it humorous.  But, why can’t we continue to be honest? If said politely, honesty seems like the right thing, all the time.

Telling white lies to be polite is sometimes selfish. We are often thinking about how we may feel uncomfortable by being honest and people use white lies to avoid this feeling. When we tell white lies, we are often not thinking about how our dishonesty can impact our relationships. Rather than focusing on our own feelings, we can chose to have integrity, being honest with others even when it’s hard. Modeling this for our children is one of the best ways to teach them.


7 Things you can Do to Teach Honesty

  1. Tell the truth. Should you call in sick, if you aren’t sick? Be honest even when its hard.  Your kids are watching!
  2. Talk to your children about how we prioritize values. Consider asking them which ones are more important to them. Consider manners and honesty. And, remember to teach children how to politely tell the truth; considering tone, voice, and body language.
  3. Avoid setting up your child to lie.
  4. Praise honesty, especially when it’s hard to do.
  5. Be a safe presence for your child. Kids need someone to talk to without being afraid. Be a gentle and calm listener first.
  6. Teach  how to admit a wrong and model courage in tough conversations.
  7. Don’t allow your child to get away with a white lie. Lets keep our children accountable to being honest.


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