Most parents will tell you that they have children that lie from time to time. So why do kids lie and what should you do about it? As a parent, how do you know which lies are ‘okay’ and which lies are actually signs of more serious problems?
First of all it’s important to understand that lying is actually a normal part of a child’s development. Children lie for a lot of reasons. Some of them are even acceptable, or at the very least, understandable. Take for example the 2 year old who dropped the remote control down the toilet and claims she didn’t do it. It’s very likely that she might not even remember doing it – especially if it wasn’t discovered for hours after she did it.
Or how about the 3 year old that tells a story about a giant truck that came into his room and ate his shoes. This isn’t really an intent to deceive you, it’s more likely the fantastic imagination of a little boy that still isn’t quite able to tell the difference between what he has imagined and what really happened.
Children lie for lots of different reasons at different ages.
Lying is a skill we all learn. In very, very young children – 5 and under – it’s usually innocent, understandable and nothing to be overly concerned about.
Around the age of 5 or 6, most children can clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality and are beginning to understand that there are consequences to their behavior. The most common reason for lying at this age is a fear of punishment. This is especially true when the punishment is severe or the parents have unrealistic expectations for their children. Children have an innate need to ‘please’ us. Just like us, they need to feel accepted. If they feel that something they’ve done or haven’t done, will disappoint us, they may try to gain our approval by lying. Along these same lines, some children will lie to help boost a low self-image, making up stories or events to make them feel better about themselves.
Children at this age may also tell lies or exaggerate the truth in order to get their parents’ attention.
By about the age of 7 or 8, most children can usually be counted on to tell the truth. But keep in mind – they’re learning – they’ll be testing the waters to see what works and what doesn’t work. The most common reasons for children to lie at this age are to avoid being punished, or to avoid doing something that they really don’t want to do, like cleaning their room.
Also at this age, kids begin to understand the whole idea of ‘social lying’ – you know, the polite lies we all tell not to hurt someone’s feelings.
These types of lies, the lies in the early years, are all normal stages of development emotionally and socially. And although they need to be addressed, shouldn’t necessarily cause a parent much concern.
Children that lie repeatedly and especially after the age of 8 or 9, may be crying out for help. Children who are chronic liars often don’t feel good about themselves. They may be fearful of disappointing their parents and might be feeling overwhelmed by school or some other area of their lives. Lying might be an attempt to deal with this pressure.
Chronic lying at any age, might also indicate some serious problems within the family. This is especially true if the child is acting out in other ways, such as stealing or committing vandalism. These are situations that require a much different response from parents. If your child is a chronic liar, you should seek professional help as soon as possible.
- The most important thing you can do as a parent is to model the behavior that you’re looking for from your children. What’s the level of honesty in your home? What are your own standards when it comes to lying?
- If you suspect your child might be lying, review the reasons. Be thoughtful of where your child is developmentally, and try to discover the reason behind the lie. Is it innocent, or is there something important going on behind the scenes? What your child is trying to hide by lying may be much more important than the lie itself.
- Don’t over react and don’t be accusing. This will just put your child on the defensive and encourage the exact behavior you’re trying to remove. Instead talk with your child calmly and with respect.
An excellent way to talk to your kids is to ask ‘What’ questions instead of ‘Why’ questions. ‘Why did you do that?’ sets them up for an excuse response and a possible lie. Instead ask, ‘What were you thinking?’ or ‘What’s going on with you?’ This opens the lines of communication in an unthreatening, and non-judgmental way so you can help your child learn better ways to solve their problems.
- Make it easy for your child to tell you the truth and give him a chance to confess. This is best accomplished by not being ‘accusing’.
- Don’t overburden your child with too many rules and unrealistic expectations. Remember that more than anything else, your children want to please you. Set them up for success in this area.
- Make sure that any consequence you give for lying is kept separate from the consequence for whatever the lie was designed to conceal. Excessive or irrational punishments usually backfire. The greater the fear of punishment, the less likely your child will “fess up” the next time or feel safe enough to tell you the truth.
Keep in mind when providing consequences, it’s often more effective to tell a child how you really feel about their lie than to punish them for it. An honest statement like “I’m really hurt that you lied to me” is likely to have more impact on future lying than a week without television. Emphasizing the effect the lie had on others will also help your child develop a deep sense of morality.
- If your child is telling tall tales or lies to get your attention, first of all take notice here – have you been giving him enough attention? Instead of accusing him of lying, talk about it. Let him know, that you know what he’s saying isn’t really the truth, and that he doesn’t need to make up things in order for you to love him – that you love him just the way he is. Look for what’s underneath and talk about it.
- And if your child is ‘fibbing’ in front of other people, NEVER call him out on it in public. Wait until you’re alone with your child to discuss it.
ALL children lie. It’s a normal part of every persons emotional and social development. What to do when children lie is to understand what’s underneath the lie. As parents, if we take time to discover this, don’t over react, and be the best role models we can be, we should be able to help teach our children how to solve their problems instead of resorting to lying about them.
Do you have problems with your kids lying? Is it usually to avoid punishment? Or your disapproval? What consequences do you give?