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Teaching Your Child Right From Wrong

Telling a Whopper

Tim Guerrero, 4, and his 3-year-old sister, Emma, were playing nicely until Emma asked to borrow Tim's toy. When he refused, Emma snatched it out of his hand. Outraged, Tim slapped her in the face. When their mom, Millie, came in to ask what the fuss was about, Emma screamed, "Tim hit me!" The boy emphatically denied the accusation: "No, I didn't! I did not hit Emma!" But Guerrero, of Bayville, New Jersey, could plainly see a flaming-red, Tim-size handprint on her daughter's cheek.

Reality check: A bald-faced lie about a misdeed may add insult to injury, but there's no need for parents to go ballistic. The same lack of impulse control that leads a child to break a rule can also lead him, in the heat of the moment, to try to cover his tracks.

What to say: Avoid directly questioning a child's truthfulness ("Can you look me right in the eye and tell me you didn't do this?"); you'll likely cause him to dig himself an even deeper hole, says Michael Riera, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child. Guerrero might have done well to say something like "I can see that you and Emma are both very upset. Is there anything you want to tell me?" If Tim had stuck to his story, she could have tried pushing a bit: "Are you sure? You look a little uncomfortable when you say that you didn't hit Emma. I know people make mistakes sometimes, especially when they're mad about something, but it's still important to tell the truth, even when you make a mistake."

What to do: Once she made sure that no one was seriously hurt, Guerrero could have sat down with Tim and asked him why he hit his sister and what he could have done instead, offering suggestions if he was having trouble. If Tim was truly sorry, then Guerrero might have helped him brainstorm ways to make Emma feel better (offering her a damp cloth to hold against her cheek, for instance). Then she could have reminded them both (no reason not to let Emma in on the lesson) why they need to be honest.