On the way home from preschool one day, my five-year-old began to tell me a fascinating story. A boy at school had hit him, he shared. “But you can’t tell the teachers about it, Mom!” Alarmed, I asked him for more details.

Apparently, he was struck with a flaming sword. It happened during recess when every single teacher was inside drinking coffee. Luckily, my son had blasters on his shoes. He pushed a button and shot himself over the fence. His friend put down the weapon and apologized. The rest of the day was great!

My son earnestly insisted that every word of his tale was true.

According to research on the psychology of honesty, “Children’s lie-telling abilities emerge as early as three years of age and develop rapidly.” Despite our best parenting efforts, most kids are going to lie sometimes: it’s a normal part of child development. Kids peek during hide-and-seek and say they didn’t. They might have a bathroom accident and insist their pants are dry. And they might say, “I don’t know” when you ask who took the candy that was sitting on the counter.

That said, most children under the age of eight are not particularly skilled at lying — the preschooler who denies taking the candy bar probably has chocolate all over her face. This gives us an opening to talk to them about why honesty is important, how telling the truth can be both responsible and brave and what to do when it feels really hard to share what happened.

As parents, we want to encourage our kids to share openly and honestly. To do so, experts recommend the following steps:

Figure out the why behind a lie.
We can bring more compassion and understanding to a situation if we take the time to understand why our child isn’t telling the truth. For many children, the why is often driven by avoidance. Kids worry that sharing the truth will result in unpleasant consequences, so it feels easier to hide the truth — either by lying or saying nothing at all.

Sometimes the why is embarrassment or anxiety — such as a child who hides soiled underwear, a note home from the teacher or a mean comment directed toward her on the bus.

Sometimes the why is distraction or wanting to stick with an activity — such as a child who doesn’t want to stop playing so she insists that she isn’t hungry, doesn’t need to use the bathroom or that she already packed her backpack.

And sometimes the why is an appeal for attention — a fantastic story can generate interest from peers and adults! When we pay attention to the emotion behind the action, we make it easier for children to communicate honestly with us.

For each of these scenarios, acknowledging their concerns or point of view can be the first step in more honest communication. After doing so, we can reframe honesty as an act of courage: “It’s really brave to tell the truth,” I often tell my kids, “and I will always be here to help no matter what. When you tell me what happened, I can help you.”

Honor their honesty.
It feels good to be honest and brave. After my kids share something that was difficult, to verbalize, from a painful social situation to a mistake they made, I try to make my first response a compassionate one: “Thank you for telling me that” or “I love when you tell me about your day, the good stuff and the tough stuff” or “I’m so glad you shared what happened.” And when they are clearly eager but nervous to talk about a situation, I might ask, “What are you afraid might happen if you talk about it?” This helps me tend to the feelings and “settle the glitter” that can interfere with open communication.

Avoid “gotcha” moments.
If you see your child holding a purple marker, instead of saying “Who scribbled purple marker on the wall?” try saying, “It looks like you colored the wall instead of the paper. How can we fix this together?” This side-steps the question of truth-telling — and the temptation to lie! — and moves right into responsible action.

Help them see “what’s next.”
If your child is nervous about the consequences of telling the truth, help her see a concrete next step. What could you do together to solve the problem? This helps take the anxiety out of a situation. “You broke your brother’s toy and now he’s crying? Thank you for telling the truth. Now, what can we do to help him feel better?” As Daniel Tiger reminds us, “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the first step. Then, ‘How can I help?’

When my son told me the story about the flaming sword, after a few more questions I asked him, “Is this the truth-truth? Would everybody on the playground tell me the same story? Or is it imagination-truth — a really cool story that you wish had happened?”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Oh, it’s imagination-truth.” The truth-truth, he told me, was that he and a friend had been playing ninja a little too roughly on the playground and had to spend a few minutes on the “thinking bench,” talking it through with the teacher. I recognized that he was trying to avoid telling me an unpleasant story, but rather than getting frustrated with him, I expressed gratitude for his honesty when he finally did tell me the truth. I also told him that I appreciated his story — it revealed his delightful creativity and imagination. But then we talked about how sharing the “truth-truth” can be an important way to get help navigating difficult situations.

Of course, the best way parents can promote honesty is to model it ourselves — to share our feelings, to acknowledge our mistakes and to talk through how we handle tricky situations. As Mr. Rogers reminds us, "One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.”