I taught a class of young kids yesterday. Because it was Father’s Day, one of the questions posed was, “What does your dad always say?” Without thinking, one child stated: “If you keep lying, your nose will grow.” I laughed out loud. The statement told me a lot. Clearly, this cute kid was struggling with frequent lying and her parents were trying to address it.
Everyone lies. Kids do it for the same reason grown-ups do. They feel trapped or threatened, scared of punishment or rejection, or think it will make things easier somehow. So what do we do about it?
Lying: Know the Ages and Stages of Development
Prior to age 6, kids are just getting a good grasp of right and wrong. They are learning fiction from reality.
- 2 year-olds have just learned the word “no.” They lie because your angry face tells them they will be in trouble if they say “yes,” so it is a reflex to say “no.” They don’t really understand what a lie is.
- 3 to 5 year-olds are classic for telling tall tales. Their world is full of fantasy and they often struggle to distinguish the truth from reality. Generally speaking, we consider this normal and don’t get too worked up about it. If it is excessive or harmful, you may need to help reign it in a bit.
- School-aged kids start to lie for reasons. They become socially aware and are also afraid of punishment. So before you get too upset about your elementary aged liar, you may want to figure out what the underlying problem is.
- Tweens are classic for hiding and keeping to themselves. This is also normal development and part of growing up. The parenting challenge of this age is figuring out the trust balance.
- Teens are as sophisticated as adults in their reasoning for lying. If you’ve got a chronically lying teen, you have bigger fish to fry that will likely need to involve a professional.
TIPS to get the TRUTH
- First and hardest of all, be a good example of honesty. If you want your kid to tell the truth, then you always tell the truth. Kids are savvy. If they hear you call in sick (when you’re not sick), pay for child admission rates when kids are actually adult age rates, make “social lies” in conversations with people, etc., they will pick up on these things.
- Don’t pose questions that purposely trap your child in a lie. For example, if you know your child didn’t do his homework, don’t ask, “Did you do your homework?” Instead try, “I noticed you haven’t done your homework yet. Would you like some help getting it started?”
- Try to foster a safe environment for telling the truth. This does not mean you are condoning the lie or the wrong action. The child must know that he or she is unconditionally loved. Try, “Thank you for telling the truth. I know that was hard to do. There are consequences for your action, which we’ll discuss, but know that I still love you no matter what.”
- Teaching a moral compass. It is always best if a child comes to the “right” conclusion on his/her own (that is, they owned up to telling the lie). So try to give a child a way to back out of the lie. You may suggest a reason you would have been tempted to lie in the situation (e.g., being “cool,” avoiding being embarrassed). Once the child starts talking about the reason behind the lie, you can teach them how to handle it differently next time.
- Never label your kid a “LIAR.” Everyone has lied at some point as a child. See your children for who they can become once you are done teaching them, not for what they have done in the moment.
Two Helpful Phrases (from the AAP)
—to help you in your conversations with your children about honesty.
- “I want you to tell me only the truth, and I will always tell you the truth, so that we can always believe each other.”
- “You will get in much less trouble if you tell the truth instead of lying.”
My experience has been that parents want their children to be honest and learn right from wrong. Parents generally do a good job at teaching the concept of a conscience. If your child is struggling with chronic lying or doesn’t seem to have a conscience, I’d advise you seek professional help with a mental health professional.