The child who lies obviously displeases God and grieves his parents. But he also invites adverse consequences to himself.

I learned this lesson in third grade when I bought a pea shooter (an oversized drinking straw) and a bag of dry peas for shooting. I knew I would be in special trouble if I shot my younger brothers. My parents had already taken away my previous pea shooter for aiming it at my siblings.

A budding 8-year-old munitions engineer, I began experimenting outside our back door with my secret new equipment. Frustrated by the slowness of loading one pea at a time, I decided to stuff the entire bag of peas into my mouth, hoping the shooting device would work like an automatic machine gun. (It didn’t.)

Just as I glutted my bulging cheeks with pea rounds, the back door opened. Mom leaned out: “Sammy, what are you doing?” Feeling the need to conceal my mischief and high-powered weaponry, my sinful instinct was to answer, “Nothing.” But it’s hard for an 8-year-old to speak clearly when a bag of peas is holding his mouth hostage. Instead of “nothing,” out came “ngmffngm.” But I wasn’t doing ngmffngm. I lied. And my mother knew it. At that moment she didn’t worry about the pea shooter; she cared about her boy’s blatant falsehood, which revealed a darkness that strikes a wise mother’s heart with sadness and pain.

We desire for our children to tell us the truth, especially when confessing their sin. But how can we teach them to be candid with us, to speak the truth?

I’ve found six practices helpful in fostering honesty in children.

1. Pray

Ask God to do the heart work that only he can do.

Maybe someday in heaven I’ll find out all the trouble I avoided because of the prayers of my parents and grandparents.

2. Teach That God Is Truthful

Joyfully and decisively embrace God himself as truthful.

Before dealing with the actions and hearts of children, refocus your own heart on God’s trustworthiness and the extremely high premium he places on truth-telling.

Worship him for his reliability. Truth is his name (John 14:6). Get that clear. It’s impossible for him to lie (Heb. 6:18), and he hates lying (Prov. 13:5).

Aspire for you and yours to be like him.

3. Model Truth-Telling Yourself, Especially When It’s Costly

Make no compromise in your own truth-telling. Never lie to the children, or in front of them, or get them to lie for you. If we want children to confess their wrongdoings to us, we mustn’t fail in confessing and repenting of our own sins, making a humble pledge to strive to never do that wrong again.     

If you’re going to use words—and you are—mean them. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. If you say, “Turn off the video game”—and they ignore you, and you do nothing—then not only does “turn off the video game” come to mean nothing, but all your words lose value. You make your words into a kind of lie, for “turn off the video game” apparently doesn’t mean what it seems to say.

You make your words into a kind of lie, for ‘turn off the video game’ apparently doesn’t mean what it seems to say.

4. Talk to Your Kids About Telling the Truth

Talk about the advantages of truth-telling. Explain how it earns future trust, while lying destroys trust. Point out and celebrate truth-telling wherever you see it—in preaching, in news reporting, in dinner-table conversations, and so on.  

Let them hear God’s Word on the subject (e.g., Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:25; Luke 6:31; Prov. 11:3). Let them see that you take the Bible seriously. Show them in the Bible how often Jesus says “truly truly.”

Expose them to stories about truth-telling and lying, such as the little boy who cried wolf, Pinocchio, Ananias and Sapphira, and Zacchaeus.

In teaching children to speak truthfully, couple truthfulness with love (Eph 4:15). What does love do? It tells the truth.

5. Reward Kids for Truth-Telling

It’s hard to overestimate the value of swift rewards in shaping the behavior of a young child. When a child admits to his crime—breaking the lamp, kicking his brother—commend the truth-telling prior to addressing the infraction. So perhaps something like: “Thank you, son, for being honest with me. Telling the truth is so important. It helps everyone trust you. It pleases God. So I’m pleased with you that you told the truth. Now let’s address the broken lamp” (or whatever).

6. Having Underscored Honesty, Also Teach Discernment

Not all truth needs to be announced, and it certainly need not be brutal. In certain contexts, some truth is better left unsaid—just because the lady at the store is overweight doesn’t mean we need to say so! Children can incrementally be taught that some factual information is better kept to ourselves.

Parents and caregivers, may we teach our children the value and beauty of telling the truth, no matter the cost. After all, there is no greater joy than knowing our children are walking in the truth (3 John 4).