Just recently, I found a necklace in my 9 year old daughter’s backpack. It was a cheap and small item – but I knew it didn’t belong to her, and she had it anyway. I asked her where it had come from, and her non-answer was: “Uhhhh, ummmm, errrr, I don’t really remember, I think maybe, ummmmm…”  This is the child with a memory like a steel trap; she doesn’t forget a single word I say, but she forgot where this came from? Red flag! What’s a mom to do?

We want our children to be honest. And for good reason – we know that honesty and trustworthiness are important components of the relationships they will have with others throughout their lives. Honesty is required in friendships, in academics, in finances, in sports, and in many other areas of life.

I did not suspect that my daughter stole the necklace maliciously, but the truth still was that it wasn’t hers. If I let it slide, what would that teach her? I knew I couldn’t send my child to school wearing a necklace that another girl might recognize as her own, missing necklace – to do so would create opportunities for hurt feelings and accusations. I also felt it was wrong for my child to possess an item that rightly belonged to someone else.

But I was also quietly aware that how I handle these small things now will influence how my child interacts with me in the years to come. If I became too heavy-handed, she would learn that she couldn’t trust me to respond with grace to situations like this. I wanted to be a problem-solver, and I wanted for her to learn something that would serve her well in larger and weightier matters.

So I have consulted with my fine mommy friends, and bring to you the advice that has been given to me. I was surprised how much of the advice I received pertained to my own behavior and not my child’s. This is what I have learned from some very wise moms.

1. Help your child to consider others’ feelings. We were eating lunch at Panera and found a beautiful silk scarf in the parking lot. “This is very beautiful,” I told my daughter. “If this was mine, I would be so sad I’d lost it.” I did this to try to create a little empathy in my child’s thinking. What if it were an item of hers that was lost? How would she feel?

2. Model the right solution to a situation. “I would be so sad I’d lost it,” I said about the scarf. “Sad enough that I’d go looking for it! Let’s take this inside and leave it with the manager so that the person who lost it has the best chance of finding it.” I did this because I wanted her to see me place the item in another person’s hands. I recalled how, during my childhood, the adage “finders keepers, losers weepers” served as the primary moral compass when it came to lost items – and I wanted to promote something better. Better, in this case, was to find the person who had the best chance of getting the item back to its owner.

3. Model honesty. This is a hard one. But when you fess up to your own mistakes, when you do the right thing even when you could do something else, or when you take steps to rectify unfair situations even when it would be just as easy to sweep it under the rug, you teach your child a valuable lesson. Friends, I implore you: Don’t inflate the value of a donation you made so that you can claim more on your taxes. Go back into the store when you discover that the cashier didn’t scan the item underneath your cart. Don’t do that thing you think no one will notice. This is what I call “keeping your side of the street clean” – being responsible for your own behavior. Sometimes this doesn’t seem to be worth it – but the truth is that our children are watching. It is my deep conviction that our children learn from what we do much more than what we say.  It is up to me to model honesty in my own household. And when I’ve made an error, it is up to me to apologize for it and make it right, rather than to justify or cover up – the right thing isn’t always the easy thing.

4. Be careful how you correct your child’s behavior in these situations. This is a tough call to make sometimes, isn’t it? But we are treading a fine line between reinforcing desired behavior (and enacting consequences for undesired behavior) and creating a climate in which our children feel that they can’t be honest because our response is too severe. Try to understand your child’s motivation: dishonest behavior can result from stress about grades, desire to fit in, material desires, and just plain bad judgment. From this understanding you can decide how to proceed. Is there a natural consequence to the child’s dishonesty? Does your child need help with academic or social pressures? Would your child benefit from help managing money and learning to work towards material items he or she wants? Does your child need to be on a short leash for a time while being helped to conform to the expectations of school and home? Whatever the issue, before you impose punishment on your child, consider how the consequences you choose move your child in the right direction.

So here’s what I did about the necklace. In the end, I helped my daughter narrow down where the necklace came from; together we took it to the lost and found and turned it in. I did not punish her for being in possession of an item that wasn’t hers, but I also did not allow her to keep that item.

I felt that it was important that this situation not pay off in my daughter’s favor –  if she kept the necklace, this would train her to think that any item she found and liked could become hers. I wanted to teach her how to consider the feelings of the child who had lost it, and I wanted her to know how to make an honest decision in the moment without my reinforcement. She expressed a bit of disappointment, as it was a pretty necklace; I offered to take her (and her own money she earned from doing chores) to Claire’s to find one like it of her own, to encourage a bit of delayed gratification and teach her the appropriate alternative to “finders keepers”.

It almost felt silly to put so much thought into a necklace that might have cost $3. But I wanted her to learn honesty from an inexpensive little necklace, so that later when the stakes are higher, she would have some tools that might help her do the right thing. I knew this was an opportunity to teach my daughter something she needed to know, and I knew it was a chance to make good decisions myself. I’m hoping that my thought process prepared me better for the next time an honesty issue arises in our family – and that what I learned helps you too!