I'm trying to get my kids to be honest and take responsibility.

I'm seeing a repeated pattern where one or both of my kids will lie to get out of trouble. They're starting to see that they can deny responsiblity.

Our current system of reward involves a marble jar, where the family will go out for a collective treat. When this stuff happens we take marbles out of the jar as a joint penalty.

This seems to be decreasing in effectiveness.

My question is: What do I do when I walk into a room with a broken item and both children shrug their shoulders and say "Wasn't me"?

Clarification: Kids are girl: 5 and boy: 4. Cultural context is Australian middle class with two university educated parents.

  • Lying is a normal developmental stage, but you can still start teaching them the importance of telling them the truth.
    – L P
    Sep 19, 2015 at 4:55
  • I don't know the ages of your children (please do edit to add; it makes a difference), but it's possible that the younger child is imitating the older child's behavior. Also, in asking for the truth in a situation where telling the truth might earn the sibling an untoward consequence, the siblings might be protecting each other. How do you factor for that?
    – anongoodnurse
    Sep 19, 2015 at 6:42
  • When it's obviously something that the kids have done but neither takes responsibility, I tend to give a lecture on how disappointed I am that nobody will take responsibility and everybody's going to have a penalty as a result. I'm not thrilled with the effectiveness of that, either. I look forward to hearing answers.
    – Acire
    Sep 19, 2015 at 12:32
  • What motivation do they even have to admit to it with this technique? It seems like the punishment is the same whether they admit to it or not.
    – Necreaux
    Sep 20, 2015 at 20:30
  • @TheIndependentAquarius: Does culture and location have anything to do with an item being broke and 2 children not wanting to take blame? Sep 21, 2015 at 2:27

3 Answers 3


Don't punish mistakes, but do (always) reward honesty and responsibility. There is a good chance that the children are refusing to tell because they feel they will get in trouble. In the case of an actual accident, this is unfair as the child is receiving punishment for something it cannot be held responsible for. Responsible behaviour also means understanding when someone could not reasonably have known something and not faulting them for it.

When kids start to understand that being open and honest about mistakes gets them rewarded even when they have broken something, they'll be more likely to speak up. This is a good thing in the long term, because you'll understand what caused the accident and can perhaps prevent it from happening again in the future.

And even if the kids are knowingly breaking the rules and this has caused the problem, you should still reward honesty. It will still teach them that even if they did something they should not, being honest is still better than being silent. In such a case, reduce the penalties for breaking the rules. Be explicit about it, to.

After this, whenever a situation comes up where the kids still will not speak when something happened, openly tell them that if they will not speak up you will assume the worst and act accordingly. When they reach the age of basic math they will quickly learn that this is the worst possible outcome.

The system rewards openness and responsibility as long as it is used correctly. This is a thing we strongly strive for in my job and always rewarding honesty while not punishing mistakes really helps people feel more responsible and open.


(with random amounts of marbles, I don't know how many you use, it'll work as long as the relative amounts stay about the same)

Kids accidentally break a vase and confess: Add 2 marbles for being honest. No punishment since they couldn't help it.

Kids break a vase because of playing football inside, which they are not allowed to do and confess: Remove 5 marbles for breaking the rules, add 2 marbles for owning up to it. Make sure you mention both counts and don't just remove 3; they have to know that being honest is helping their case.

Kids accidentally break a vase and don't say anything: Tell them you are assuming the worst if they don't explain. Then remove 5 marbles for intentionally breaking the vase.

Kids break the vase because of playing football and don't say anything: Tell them you are assuming the worst if they don't explain. Then remove 5 marbles for intentionally breaking the vase.

  • The case that is most worried about: When they break it because of playing football inside, and then confess to breaking it, but leave out the bit about football. Sep 21, 2015 at 16:04
  • I feel that "My children are lying to my face" should be its own question. Worrysome, but not on topic here I think.
    – Erik
    Sep 21, 2015 at 16:24
  • It should also probably be noted that at that age long-term rewards have very low value to kids even if they're large while small short term rewards and punishments carry a lot of weight to them. I'd also be worried about perverse intensives if breaking something and confessing is actually rewarded rather than simply not punished because that means breaking things is actively rewarded.
    – Murphy
    Sep 21, 2015 at 16:45
  • If breaking things is earning rewards, considering making a rule against breaking things intentionally :)
    – Erik
    Sep 21, 2015 at 17:36

Answer: use Soviet Army style motivation :)

To quote an old Soviet Army joke, an officer walks in on something bad having happened, and yells at the privates:

I'm gonna carefully investigate who's guilty and who's innocent and then punish everyone in sight!

While the original intent was to make fun of dumb officers, the officer isn't as dumb as it seems: he's using game theory very effectively.

If you make (using game theoretical terms) the payoffs for confessing more attractive (e.g. less punishing) than payoffes for not confessing, you can avoid the "Prisoner's Dilemma" (which is what you get when they payoffs favor mutual non-confession).

Some ways to do it:

  1. Consistent major punishment for lying to parents in general

    In our house, the rule is always very simple: you get worse punishment for lying about doing anything bad, than you'd get for doing it in the first place (and you still get punished for bad thing as well).

  2. Specific extra punishment for being caught in a prisoner's dilemma.

    If a punishment for doing X is Y, then the punishment for doing X and NOT having a consensus of who the guilty party is is 2*Y for both kids.

  3. Extra rewards for not doing anything bad for a sustained period.

    E.g. you get a reward (extra computer time, extra treat request for parent to cook) for a week of "good" behavior. However, being caught in this situation without acknowledged person at fault scraps the "good week".

    This particular approach (unlike #1 and #2) has a weakness in that it's very effective against "neither of us did it" claim but entirely useless once they smarten up and switch to "he did it - no she did it" claim.

  4. Give rewards (or lesser punishments) for true confessions. (Erik's answer addresses this in details)

  • 1
    Oh, you gotta love math. I like the part about extra punishment for the prisoners dilemma :).
    – martin
    Sep 25, 2015 at 12:55
  • #2 broke so hard in my family it wasn't used again.
    – Joshua
    Nov 5, 2017 at 1:12

It's hard to know your family history with this small amount of text. I also don't know what type of trouble they get into. This might not fit but I'll give a try. They might be afraid of making a mistake. Have you punish them in the past?

Sometime you might think they lie but in reality they might be just saying "I wish I didn't do it". Say to them it's ok to make mistake, it's important that you know about it so we can fix it together.

Instead of reward and punishment, you could try to convert each situation into a learning opportunity. A vase broke? Don't need to blame anybody, get everybody to clean up together instead. "I see the vase broke. Do you know what we need to do? Let's put the pieces in the trash. Later, we will go to the store and buy a new vase together."

What you really want isn't for them to stop making mistake, you want them to start fixing their mistake. Reward the fixing part. Don't punish the mistake part.

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