Yikes! My kid lies! Does that mean I’m a bad parent?
Well…if that makes you a bad parent, then I’m a bad parent, she’s a bad parent, he’s a bad parent–we’re all bad parents if measured by our kids lying.
In fact, if kids are being dishonest, it’s a sign that they are growing in intelligence, and experimenting with the truth, and with consequences, and being creative. It’s a normal part of childhood development!
Lying is normal?! Whaddaya mean?
Lying is part of normal growth and development. In fact, there are indications that lying in children can be an indicator of social intelligence.
In young children, lying is seen as a way to avoid upsetting adults and have them be angry at you. Children don’t want to be punished. It turns out that the smartest kids are the ones who lie. It is a recognition that the other has different thoughts than your own–when children lie, it’s a sign they have figured out that parents are not mind readers. It isn’t malicious, it is strategic.
In preschoolers, dishonesty can be part of imagination, how one wishes it would be. Children might have an imaginary friend, and be able to tell you all about her. And then it’s much easier to say the imaginary friend wet the bed than to acknowledge responsibility. School aged children will often lie when they feel in over their heads in a situation, or they fear anger from an adult.
Older children may lie for a variety of reasons. They may do it to appear a certain way to their peers, or to their parents, or to demonstrate that they are “good enough”, or to gain attention.
Bottom line: There is a always a more important reason to lie than to tell the truth.
Another bottom line: don’t assume that you know that reason.
Children may lie because they are covering up being bullied at school, or because they are worried their parents are too fragile to handle a truth, or because they are starting to choose to not disclose pieces of their story as part of normal developmental maturation (e.g. lying about a first boyfriend or school yard kiss) or because of anxiety, or because they fear telling the truth. And yes, often kids will lie because “it’s worth it”.
So what does a parent do about a child’s fibs?
Understand the developmental age, and the purpose that lying serves. Small children need to learn through experience that lying is wrong…they aren’t born into this world knowing that. Teens, as they work to develop their own space, can learn to develop their own boundaries by declaring them, rather than lying.
It is also important to understand the underlying reasons why the lying is occurring. Most parents assume that children lie to do what is self serving and then avoid punishment (e.g. deny eating the cookies before dinner because he wanted to enjoy them and didn’t want to be punished).
There may be other reasons for the dishonesty, and it can be important to create a safe space (with the help of a teacher/mentor/counsellor if necessary) to know why a child is lying. Knowing the underlying reason for lying may profoundly change the strategy to address the lying.
The child may be stealing money to pay off a school yard bully.
- If you knew this was the reason for theft, you deal with the bully
The child is exaggerating stories to ensure that the stories (and therefore the child) are valued and heard
- If you know this to be the reason, then finding ways to ensure the child feels s/he is heard and valued becomes the antidote
The child may lie because of insecurities of losing the parents love with honesty…be candid…if you thought you would lose your parent’s love if you admitted you broke the family heirloom vase, would you admit it?
- Can you imagine this latter child’s reaction to a “time out” that separated you from your parent as a consequence? It might escalate the fear and the lying.
- If the child is lying to avoid losing a parent’s love, it may make much more sense to have a “time in” that reassures the child of love, reducing further need to always be perfect/lie about imperfections.
All children need to understand the value of honesty in building trust in relationships, and have them experience how relationships with integrity actually work more effectively in a family. If a child can understand that honesty builds trust, and trust increases self respect and the respect of parents which can result in more freedoms then lying becomes not “worth it” anymore.
In a situation where the child lied because they thought it was worth it, help them see that it actually isn’t. When there is a lie in a relationship that is intended to function with trust and love, the trust is broken, and then circumstances need to change. So…if the child said there was no booze at the party, and you find out from another mother that there was…trust has been broken…and so the child may have limitations on whose house he can go hang out at, or you may decide you need to call the parents where he is going to check out the circumstances ahead of time, or you may pick him up at a earlier time in the evening rather than allowing him to get home with friends–for a time, as trust is rebuilt. Have conversations about what he can do to rebuild trust–and give him a chance to gradually do so…so that it pays off to be honest.
Do adults help children lie?
Usually not maliciously, no. But yes, think about it…how often have your children witness you be dishonest even just today? Y’know… “I’ll be happy to bring cookies to the bake sale” on the phone and then immediately grumble about it on hanging up. And tell your kids, “I’d love to play yet another game of ‘go fish'” through gritted teeth and barely veiled annoyance. Tell your friend you love her new sweater when she asks, and they see you roll your eyes when she turns her back. Complain to your child that they “never” clean up their room…really, is that honest, or convenient hyperbole? Perhaps even when we tell them that the Easter bunny is real, and we work to be convincing of it, and they cotton on the fact that we are telling stories. Kids watch us, and learn that dishonesty is a socially acceptable part of life.
Be the example of honesty. Don’t lie about smoking to your spouse after you’ve been in the back yard having some puffs…your kids notice and they will do what you do, rather than do what you say.
Have the child understand the difference between a “white lie” (i.e. a socially acceptable lie) and a real lie. I recall a situation where a little family friend opened up a gift on his birthday and was honest when he said, “This is not a present. This is clothes.” His parents were horrified because he told the truth…they wanted him to lie in a socially acceptable way–to be grateful for a gift he wasn’t especially fond of. Now…how confusing is that for a child!
Another way we help children lie is to set the kids up to lie. When you see the child with sprinkles on his face and the empty container, you can put the kid under a test and ask (see below for the terribly cute response) or notice, “I see sprinkles on our face and a half empty container. Tell me about that.”
Let me assure you that I have spoken to many adults in marriages that come to counselling because when they are “put on the spot” about a mistake they have made, they go for “short term gain” and give the convenient answer rather than the truth.
If you notice cigarettes in your teen’s car, asking if they smoke is a test, asking them when they started smoking starts the conversation. Don’t back your kids into a corner where they make a snap decision and then have to continue to defend a position they adopted in a panic. And allow the child to change their story to a truthful one with dignity. For example: “You say that you haven’t been smoking. I saw cigarettes in the car you drive. I’m going to go put the laundry in, give you a few minutes to take some deep breaths, and give you a do-over. We’ll restart this conversation, and I’ll give you a chance to come clean so that we can keep the trust we’ve developed.”
What else can we do to reduce lying?
Notice stories of honesty in the news and talk about them over the dinner table. Remind your child (and yourself) before a discussion that honesty is valued in your household. Let the child know the effect of honesty vs lying on you and how you feel in a relationship. Let your child know how you honour their courage when they are brave enough to be honest when it is hard.
Find ways of honouring a painful honesty so that they don’t regret their choice of honest–in the moment it can be difficult to notice their honesty about a mistake, but find ways of looking at the big picture to notice their actions in a way that. For example: “It must have been hard for you to admit to me just now that you broke that window. That took a lot of courage to tell me you were throwing the ball around the house even though you know you weren’t supposed to. I’m mad about your disobeying, but also really proud that you owned your mistake. We will have to talk about what happens with the broken window, for sure–cuz you blew it and we both know it. But part of how I’m going to remember this story is how you were brave enough to be honest with me.”
Can you imagine what it would be like for a child to hear that? How that would make it that much safer to be honest the next time and not lie about things…when potentially, the stakes are much higher?
Ensure that you are addressing the behaviour of lying–which is something that child can actively work on with you, rather than labelling the child as “a liar”–which pigeonholes the child and may “sentence” the child to that identity, making it almost impossible to change the behaviour.