Does your child insist that she cleaned her room but the wind made it messy again? Does your budding artist disown the crayon mural in the hallway? Or does your son deny whopping his brother although you watched it go down? When things like this happen, you may be wondering why are they lying and how do we get them to tell the truth … and maybe even more profoundly, a bigger fear, are we raising a pathological liar?
Research actually says that some levels of lying are healthy and acceptable. In fact, one study shows that between the ages of 4 and 17, lying is normal, and, after the age of 17, lying decreases significantly. Whatever the lie, big or small, it’s a frustrating challenge for parents. But when we understand why children lie, we can help them become more honest.
Magical Thinking: Ages 2 - 4
Lying isn’t always done with ulterior motives. When your preschooler starts lying, it’s simply a new developmental milestone. At this age, so much of a child’s world is based on play and developmentally their brains cannot keep track of what’s fantasy and what’s reality. Elizabeth Berger, child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character says, “Toddlers have a fairly shaky grasp on the difference between reality, daydreams, wishes, fantasies, and fears. So if your toddler tells you he is a purple dragon and the dog has wings, roll with it.”
Other times, we may feel like our toddlers are lying to get their way, yet experts say that preschool-aged children are too young to understand lying as a moral choice. According to research by Kang Lee, University of Toronto professor and director of the Institute of Child Study, lying actually signifies changes in the way our children organize information. Children don’t always think before they act and, therefore, don’t always anticipate consequences. So if your child denies eating that cookie while traces of the chocolate crumbs remain on her face, keep in mind that, to her, her denial of the act will somehow magically erase her behavior, and everything will be okay.
Wishful Thinking: Ages 4-7
Play is still a common state of mind for children of this age and so they may lie to express what they wish would have happened. It's not a conscious or malicious plan, rather it often stems from regret or embarrassment. If your child were to say, “I don’t know how the toy broke. Someone else did it," it can be helpful to translate their statement to, "I wish I didn’t break the toy." Or if your child tells you that, “dad said I could eat 10 pieces of candy for breakfast” when you know the family agreement is no candy in the morning, you can translate their message to, “I wish I could have candy for breakfast.”
Skill Seeking: School-Aged
Children at this age understand that lying is wrong, but also know that lying can help them avoid consequences. According to pediatric psychologist Kristen Eastman, Psyd, “at this age, skill-building is the goal. Kids usually want to do the right thing but when they lack the skills to handle a situation, they just choose the path of least resistance. So if your child lies about not having homework, find out why. Maybe they don’t understand or can’t keep track of their assignments. Pinpoint what is behind the lie and focus on teaching your child skills to problem-solve and get through uncomfortable situations.”
Teens And Beyond
During middle school years, children are more likely to lie to fit in with peers, get out of trouble, or to feel powerful. Dr. Eastman explains the importance of helping children understand the impact of their choices. “Helping children see why limits are put into place can help them make better choices. Parents can talk with their children and explain their concerns (whether moral or safety issues) and perhaps find a compromise.”
Our Reaction Matters
Would you be honest if you knew it would cause you humiliation, a lecture, a punishment, or being yelled at? Unlikely. And it’s hard for our children, too. They don’t want to get in trouble and they don’t want to disappoint us.
From the most innocent of lies to the most serious, it is possible to teach children the value of honesty without relying on punishments or bribes. Research has shown that children that are punished for lying are more likely to lie again in the future. However, children that are given an opportunity to make amends and tell the truth without fear are more likely to learn problem-solving skills. “As parents, we are playing the long game. When we are face to face with our children in the midst of their lie, the urge is to punish, bribe, or shame. Yet, the better goal is to keep the lines of communication open,” Dr. Eastman says.
Keeping in mind the reasons why kids lie, we can create an environment where they feel safe to tell the truth. Here are some tools:
1. Find your center. In the face of a lie, how do you feel? Angry, frustrated, confused, worried? Getting underneath our own emotions helps us better be with what’s happening at the moment. With a clear head, we can become curious about the lie rather than react to it.
2. Avoid setting up a lie. When we ask questions to which we already know the answer, we’re giving our children the opportunity to tell a lie. Instead, emphasize ways to address the situation. Instead of asking “did you put away your clothes?” try stating, “I noticed the laundry is waiting in the basket, do you have a plan for putting it away?” Or, instead of asking, “did you hit your brother?” as you watched it play out, try “I hear you say you didn’t hit your brother, yet it seems like he was hit. What could we do next time we feel angry?” Reframing questions in this way can help prevent a power struggle and allows your child to focus on a plan of action instead of fabricating an excuse.
3. Find what’s underneath the lie. While we may want to put our child on the spot when we catch them in a lie, accusing or blaming them often only amplifies the behavior we want to avoid. Instead, get to the root of the problem and understand why she felt she could not be honest with you. This will help encourage your child to tell the truth in the future. Is she fearful of getting in trouble? Does she feel embarrassed or is she trying to save the relationship? Is there a lacking skill or does she need help to cope with a new stressor in her life? Open up a gentle conversation, “You seem worried to tell me the truth. Let’s talk about that. What would help you be honest?” You can use the information you gather to help her be more truthful in the future.
4. Make mistakes safe. Compassionately notice how you respond to misbehavior and mistakes, whether it’s spilled milk on the floor or the mistruth about missing cookies. When our kids worry about being yelled at or punished when they make mistakes, they shy away from coming to us with the truth. Instead of reacting to your child’s lie, become curious, and discuss solutions with your child.
5. Celebrate honesty. When your son has used the wall for his next art piece and owns up to the masterpiece, commend him for telling you the truth. “It can be hard to tell the truth. Thank you for telling me what happened and taking responsibility. Let’s come up with a plan to clean the crayon off the wall.” While we may not always like the behavior, we can create a home environment where it is safe to tell the truth. Rather than punishing, use truth-telling as a learning opportunity and help your child find solutions to their problems so they don’t feel the need to hide them.
While lying can be a trigger for many parents, it is a developmental rite of passage that all children experience. It is in the way we address these milestones that influence whether our children will feel comfortable making mistakes and telling the truth or continue the cycle of lying. Creating a safe environment for children to feel, express, and own up to mistakes without fear of punishment makes space for skill-building and connection. When we show our kids that our unwavering love is no lie, we help them find their truth.
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