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None of us likes to be caught making a mistake. It’s natural to find another explanation, someone else to blame, even to plead total ignorance. Politicians in tight spots routinely answer, “I don’t remember” when asked if something happened on their watch. We shouldn’t be too surprised when our own children give similar excuses.

But we parents want to know. We want to know if our kid did something so we can assign someone to clean up the mess, make restitution, or apologize. We want to be able to feel a matter has been dealt with, and that means knowing whom to blame.

So what can you do if your child won’t own up? Here are some tips to encourage truth-telling.

If you know the answer, don’t ask. If you know your child broke the window – or have a pretty good idea that he did – then don’t give him the opportunity to lie to you. Don’t ask him if he broke it; tell him that he broke it. Say, “I see the window is broken. Tell me how that happened.” You might still get “I don’t know” in response, but because you’ve led with a statement, not a question, you are still in control of the situation. You can still say, “Well, you’re going to have to clean up the glass and pay out of your allowance for the replacement. Let’s go get the broom.” It doesn’t matter that your child “doesn’t know” how it happened or doesn’t want to tell you. You know he did it and you’ve said so.

Make it safe to tell the truth. One reason why children don’t admit to their missteps is they are afraid of being punished if they tell the truth. So make telling the truth punishment-free. If you know your child broke the window and you say, “I see the window is broken. Tell me how that happened,” and she tells you, that’s your cue to be understanding. You and your child can clean up the mess together and chip in together to replace the glass. Telling the truth is the grownup thing to do.

Realize that sometimes, you’ll never know. Much of life is mysterious and often that includes who did what. Trying to organize a truth squad to get to the bottom of a misdeed is often futile. The truth becomes more difficult to determine as children grow older, are better able to cover their tracks and are more skilled at deception. You’re fighting a losing battle if you think you have to get a confession every time something goes wrong.

But confession isn’t necessary for a point to be made. Even though you may never know how the window got broken, you can still engage your child in making things whole again. You can ask him to go online and find out how to replace window glass and do the job (assuming he’s old enough) or help you to do it. The lesson to be learned is “we’re a family and when a window is broken, it has to be fixed.” It’s a lesson in responsibility and stepping up. This lesson is almost as good as the lesson about always telling the truth; in fact, it’s really the same lesson.

When we deal truthfully with our children, not trying to catch them in a lie or making lying more painless than being honest, we demonstrate what integrity looks like. Even though our children will still shade the truth sometimes, they are learning how to be responsible and fair. We are showing them the way.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.