Q: Can I teach my toddler about “Honesty?”

A: Let’s talk about the unique way that a toddler learns. They are pretty concrete thinkers and learn by repetition and example. A child between the ages of 15 months and three years has a very concrete understanding of the world around them. Because actual toddlers are concrete thinkers, the abstract nature of honesty is a difficult concept for them to grasp. They typically function based on how they “feel” – happy, sad, confused. It is typically at preschool age, around four years (although all children progress a bit differently) that a child can appreciate the difference between a “lie” and the “truth.” However, we can still use repetition and example to help set the groundwork for our toddlers.

We mentioned that toddlers learn by example and are more likely to associate things with how they “feel.” That means that the best way to set the groundwork for honesty is to be a trustworthy parent. It helps toddlers to feel ‘safe.’ Do what you say you will do – even when in the midst of discipline. If you say that your toddler will have simmer time if they scream at the top of their lungs – then put them in simmer time.

Show yourself to be trustworthy. In the same way, if you say that you will get ice cream after dinner, then get ice cream after dinner.

The best way to communicate honesty to your toddler is to “Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” This is a powerful tool in setting up a child’s understanding of honesty.

A parent who makes a habit of being trustworthy is the parent who builds a great foundation for the fundamental understanding of honesty. We cannot be perfect but we can be aware of the things that we are modeling.

Finally, toddlers are just learning to communicate. They will try things out to see how adults respond and just to give it a “go” for themselves. No need to label them a ‘liar’ – just address the lie with a simple, repetitive truth. “When you say you did not let the hamster out of his cage when I saw you do it, is a lie. It is unkind to lie. You are a [Last Name] – and [Last Name] tell the truth.” Then move on, do not go over the history of truth or ten ways that lies can go wrong. Simple, repetitive truth from the heart of the one who shows them how life works will do just fine.

Read more in our Moms On Call – Toddlers: 15 Months-4 Years Book.