Children and Lying: Why They Do It and What to Do About It

May 19, 2010

I have recently been asked to share some thoughts and suggestions about children and lies. They tend to go hand in hand, from the most innocent of white lies to the more complex calculated ones. Kids learn very quickly that lies can serve them well, even when they are taught that lies are wrong. But, let’s be realistic here – adults lie on average twice a day, according to a recent study. So, how do we enforce a truth-telling expectation when we don’t follow our own rules?

Children are somewhat hard-wired to please those whom they love. They feel compelled to make parents and authority figures happy. They also understand that they often do things that would accomplish neither. So, when confronted or cornered, they will try with all of their might to make the situation more favorable, for the sake of both themselves and the other. That may mean denying pushing their sibling off of the bed (when said sibling is crying on the floor), saying it was Johnny at school who was talking during nap (not your child!), or promising they already brushed their teeth (the toothbrush is dry).

Another factor involved in the process of lying for children is that kids are learning cause and effect, action and consequence, and testing boundaries. In other words, what can I get away with? What will Mom or Dad believe or not believe? What happens if I lie and get caught? What happens if I lie and get away with it? How do I feel after I lie – proud or guilty? It is a learning process that has to be teased apart in their minds. And unfortunately, in this case, the process must accompany experience with telling lies.

Also, do not kid yourself for a second that children don’t pick up on the lies that you tell throughout the day. Mind you, I am not accusing you of telling outright untruths. However, when you tell your friend that you “aren’t feeling well” and have to cancel your play date, but your child witnesses you breathe a sigh of relief after hanging up because you dodged the bullet of being around the worst behaved kid on the block, they notice. They also watch when you are questioned or confronted by someone how you respond and they learn to be truthful even if it hurts, or they assume sometimes little lies are okay if it is easier to deal with than the truth. I live by the motto that kids are three times more intelligent than you give them credit for.

I feel it necessary to acknowledge that a lot of telling the truth or lying is in direct relation to personality and temperament of the child. I had a client who would lie about something happening at home or school (I rode horses with my friends this weekend), I would believe him, and then several seconds later would tell me it was a lie. This child would also admit he was lying without prompting to his parents. Interestingly, he would cry and be so upset after telling the lie, and only feel better if he was sent to his room. On the other end of the spectrum, I had several children who lied about seemingly everything, and even when I called them on it, they refused to acknowledge the fact that they were telling lies.

So, how do you handle lying? First, I believe you need to get to the root of the lie. What motivation do they have to lie? Is it to get out of a punishment that they know they deserve (denial of wrongdoing)? Is it to make you think better of them (exaggerations)? Is it to impress someone (one-up syndrome)? To give them something in fantasy that they don’t have in reality (wishful thinking)? Determining the why can help you adjust your response accordingly.

Once you know what purpose the lie serves, you can address that specific point in your response. For instance, if your child tells you they ran the lap at PE and beat everyone in the whole school, but you know they are a slow runner, you might say, “I wonder if you would have liked to have run faster than everyone and that’s why you said that”. Notice that you are not accusing them of lying, nor correcting them – just acknowledging the feeling. It may take a few times before they realize that you understand more than just what they are saying. Once they admit they didn’t actually run the lap faster than everyone (without interrogation or coercion!), you can tell them that lying is not necessary. You might also discuss the importance of trust and honor, in age appropriate terms.

I was at a friend’s house a while back, and four toddlers were playing in another room. All of a sudden one erupts into tears, and is hurt. After some questions, the two moms come to determine that the girl hit the boy and he fell over. However, she vehemently denied it, blaming a third boy. The third boy accuses her in retaliation. The mother of the little girl eventually gets her to admit that she did indeed hit the boy, and therefore lied. So, the mother tells her she must go to timeout for hitting and telling fibs.

This struck me as odd, since the girl actually admitted that she did something wrong. So, for all intents and purposes, she then was punished for telling the truth. I understand trying to impart a lesson that one must not tell lies, but after a lie has been acknowledged does not seem like the time to reinforce that you should not tell the truth unless you want to end up in timeout. Do you see the backward logic in that? Kids would too.

Most of all, when dealing with lies, guard against making kids feel guilty about their lies. Berating children for being dishonest only makes them resent you. Instead, keep things light and neutral. Most often, kids lie when they feel out of control or under pressure. Are you giving your kids enough room to play and live without being under your disciplinary thumb? If they do lie, acknowledge it briefly and calmly. “Betty, since you have chosen to tell me a lie, you have chosen to give up your play time today (or whatever previously established consequence has been set)”. It should always be a reflection of THEIR choice to lie, rather than your need to punish them for it. Read more about Setting Limits and Giving Choices here.

Above all else, it is important to remember that lying is a part of life and a normal part of childhood development. Obviously, it can get out of hand and create severe problems as children get older if left unchecked. However, if you treat it as part of the child-rearing package and handle it with respect and understanding, more than likely children will learn that they don’t need to lie and it isn’t nearly as taboo as they once thought and it will lose it’s luster.

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