Time for the Truth: What Does it Really Mean When Kids Lie?
Remember the famous story about a young George Washington who could not tell a lie? What a whopper. The more realistic tale is the one about Pinocchio—the would-be boy who lied until the web of deception was as plain as the ginormous nose on his wooden face.
It’s the truth: Almost all kids lie. They might also cheat and steal. But that doesn’t mean they’re headed for juvenile hall. To learn the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, a child occasionally has to steamroll through them; doing wrong is an essential part of how a kid learns—with parental guidance—to do right. Here’s what’s normal (along with what might be more troubling) and how you can be soft on the little criminal but hard on the crime.
Truth vs Fiction
Understanding the difference between truth and fiction is a skill that comes with age and experience. Young children often have a difficult time knowing for sure what is fantasy and what is reality. That’s why they love a good fairy tale, become new characters with the simplest of costume changes, and
embody all the magic of holiday traditions. With the powerful imagination
that often comes with childhood, young kids are often capable of creating
narrative that is so vivid even they believe it is true.
Sometimes children say what they wish was true. Verbal intricacies may
trip them up, taking a hope and turning it into a statement of fact.
“Johnny said I could come over.” “Sarah said I could have it.”
“Mom said we could do it.” We can validate their desires while still
clarifying the facts. “Is that what happened, or what you were
hoping would happen?” “I can see that you would want to have
cookies for dinner, but I knowthat…..”
Many times, if you look behind the tale your child is weaving they may
be hiding shame or embarrassment about something. It’s too uncomfortable to accept the truth, so they create something more convenient. My son’s story is case in point. Instead of feeling badly about damaging his own shirt (one of his favorites, by the way) he created a story to soften the blow.Responding harshly only exacerbates the situation when shame, guilt, or embarrassment is the motivator. Respond with gentle questions, validations, and reinforcements. “I know you wouldn’t want to ______. It doesn’t feel good when we make mistakes, but it’s OK. I make mistakes too. What’s really important to me that we tell each other the truth so we can help each other."
The Greater Good
Particularly for older children, dishonesty actually becomes a marker of prosocial behaviour. As children become aware of the white lies that may be told, even by adults, they start to view lying as a way to save others from pain and disappointment. They’re being polite, or so they may think. Unfortunately, we often reinforce this when we encourage white lies as good manners. Soon, not upsetting Grandma by telling her there are lumps in the mashed potatoes is on the same moral plane as not upsetting mom by telling her about a fight at school. As adults, we can help avoid this trap by teaching children how to be honest without being harsh. Didn’t like dinner/the gift/etc.? You can still say “Thank you. That was so kind of you.”
The most obvious reason kids would lie is to cover their tracks. They don’t want to get in trouble, disappoint, or face the consequences, so they create a cover. When we make it clear to children that we would rather hear the ugly truth than a beautifully constructed lie, we give them room for honesty. Severe responses to misdeeds can also promote dishonesty. I spoke once with a woman who lived in fear of her abusive father. She mentioned that his quick temper didn’t do much to keep her in line, but it did teach her to be a really good liar. She felt she had to be to protect herself and her sister. Abuse may be on the far end of the spectrum, but when we have an explosive response to mistakes or tend to assign consequences that are out of balance with the behaviour, we actually encourage more dishonesty. So now we understand a bit more about why kids may not tell the truth, now the question is what should we do about it? Most experts agree that overreacting or shaming your child will do little to help and may even be counterproductive when you consider the link between dishonesty and shame.
So what to do? Here are a few approaches to consider:
Talk About Reality
Regularly talk about truth vs fiction. While reading stories, playing pretend, or watching a show, pause now and then and ask, “That’s pretty fun/silly/etc., but could it really happen?” “Is this a true story or a fiction story?” This simple exercise helps kids with understanding what it means to tell the truth, while also helping to build a vital literacy skill as well.
Allow Time for Thought and Clarity
Sometimes when you catch a child presenting an untruth, the best thing to do is to wait. As my older son wove a tale, I listened with a contemplative “hmm”, honestly trying to decide how to respond. As I bought time for myself, I was unknowingly also giving him the time he needed to clarify things himself. A short pause was followed by, “Well, it didn’t really happen, but it would be funny if it did.” Which I followed with, “Well that makes more sense! I was starting to feel a little confused!”
For older children in particular, just offering think time can untangle the
web on its own. If your child needs prompting, sincere questions like,
“That sounds a little confusing to me, because I know…” will give him the
opportunity he needs to straighten things out on his own terms.
Create an Honest Culture
Make it clear that honesty is a trait that you value. Teach this by example.
Teach it with stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, George Washington and
that cherry tree, or even better– your own life. Point out honesty and
dishonesty and their consequences in books and shows. Make it clear
that you value honesty over perfection. “We all make mistakes. I make
mistakes all the time. What matters most to me is that you know you
can always tell me what really happened.
”Thank your kids for telling the truth and let them know that you
understand how hard it can be sometimes.
Remember that kids often lie in an attempt to please YOU, so emphasize how
much happier you are to know the truth than to be saved from bad news.
Avoid Lose/Lose Questions
Too often we set kids up to lie. We know they’ve done wrong and we paint them into a corner. In a sense, we’re almost lying ourselves by pretending we don’t know. We present a lose/lose question: disappoint me by lying or disappoint me with the truth. Instead of asking if a child committed the misdeed, state what you know first: “I noticed you had a cookie…” or “I noticed you left your homework here.” Follow up with “…Tell me about that.” or “What do you think should be done about that?”
Developmentally Appropriate Isn’t Always Socially Appropriate
At the bottom line, we know that lying is a normal part of development. In and of itself, it isn’t cause for great alarm. We also know, however, that when a tool works for a child, the child will continue to use it. The longer they use it, the more it becomes a habit. An obviously tall tale at 4 may not be much cause for concern, but a habit of deceit at 10 may become a huge problem.
Don’t ignore the behaviour, but don’t overreact either. Be honest, value and reward honesty, and talk about honesty casually and frequently. Honesty is a virtue, and virtues take time and effort to be established.
When to Be Concerned?
At what point should lying, cheating, and stealing really bother a parent? There are no definitive answers here: It’s a combination of the frequency of the behaviour and the seriousness of the offense. We look at three things: pattern, reaction and other life stressors.
Pattern- If it’s happening constantly, in numerous situations, that’s worrisome. Is your child lying to you and the babysitter and Grandpa and the teachers? Also, take note if the bad behaviour occurs along with emotional outbursts or other problematic behaviours, like intense tantrums or back talk.
Reaction- Does your child seem ashamed when you explain why the behaviour is wrong? It’s troubling if your child reacts in a callous or unemotional way, or if he keeps breaking the rules after you’ve talked about ways to solve the problem. For example, he’s been stealing other kids’ toys and you’ve discussed sharing instead.
Other life stressors- Lying, cheating, and stealing can arise in times of tension (during a divorce, for instance), when kids are prone to acting out. If it goes on for an extended period or starts to cause stress for the whole family, it would be wise to get help from a therapist.
Still need more help? Don't hesitate to contact us