As a parent we need to take a step back. Just think about yourself. You will realize that children and adults lie for similar reasons. These are:
- To get out of trouble;
- For personal gain;
- To impress someone;
- To protect someone;
- To be polite;
- Has low self-esteem and seeks acceptance;
- Feeling stressed;
- Trying to avoid conflict;
- Seeking attention;
- Lies when something bad or embarrassing has happened and want to keep it hidden of creating a story to feel better.
Children lying is part of developmental growth and is normal
In some situations, lying is just one way children learn to navigate their social world. Open and honest, warm discussions about telling the truth should eventually help reduce the occurrence of lies as children develop and grow older.
At an early age, children will experiment with the truth and they continue to do so through all the developmental stages. It is important to be aware of your child’s development stage, what is appropriate, and what would be an appropriate response.
Toddlers and Pre-schoolers (Ages 2 to 4)
- At this age a child does not have much of an understanding of when something is the truth or not true. Their language skills are just emerging. They are not fully grasping the difference between reality, wishes, fantasies, daydreaming and fears.
- Strong emotions can make a 2/3 year old insist that something is true, as toddlers are trying to exhibit their independence and turn any disagreement into a power struggle. Try a mild, diplomatic response that interjects doubt, such as, “Really?
- Toddlers are too young to be punished for lying, but it is important that parents subtly begin to encourage truthfulness.
- Around the age of 4, as children become more verbal, they can tell obvious little lies, like “No” when you ask simple questions like, “Did you pinch your sister?”
- Use every opportunity to explain what a lie is and why it is unacceptable. It should be done soon after your child tells the lie so the memory will still be fresh. Say “let’s talk about lying and why it’s not okay.” Be firm and serious, and say, “it sounds like you’re not telling the truth.” Do not further confront the child or try to establish the truth unless the situation is serious and demands more attention.
School going age (Ages 5 to 8)
- At this age the 5-8 year olds are telling lies to test boundaries and establish if they can get away with it. It is mostly related to school matters such as their classes, their teachers, their friends and homework. The cover up does not always work but they do sometimes become better at it.
- Often lies are told because somehow, they are not coping with the demands/expectations of the school environment and interpersonal relationships. Instead of getting into a battle about the lies, explore what your child is struggling to deal with. In this way you can assist and support your child to manage the difficulties they are experiencing.
- Talk openly to your child and notice when a child is being honest – giving praise and positive feedback.
- As parent you are the most important role model. School-age children are keen observers and will follow your example. Even something as small as “Tell them I’m not at home” when you are – can send a very mixed message to a school-aged child. You undermine the message being honest if children see you being dishonest. Help your child to identify what is positive in a situation instead of having to lie about it. This is especially important in relationships where there are parental disputes as well.
Tweens (Ages 9 to 12)
- Between 9 to 12 most children are in the period of developing a hardworking, trustworthy, and conscientious identity. But they are also becoming more skilled at lying and tuned into the consequences of their actions. They may have strong feelings of guilt after lying.
- Conversations about honesty are definitely necessary, as there will be rare “little white lie” moments when some dishonesty is acceptable in order to be polite or to spare another person’s feelings. When situations like this arise, be straightforward with your child to avoid sending mixed messages. Teach them how to be honest without being hurtful to someone else.
- Good role models are crucial for your kids. Children who have an established relationship with their parents, where they feel comfortable talking and disclosing information, are more likely to tell the truth. If you think they are lying, think about why they may be lying as it will assist you to respond appropriately.
WHY DO CHILDREN LIE?
- During these early years of development children are concrete thinkers. In families there are many grey areas on the spectrum of lying. Some lies are accepted, even encouraged and some lies get a big reaction. For children who are concrete thinkers, these nuances on the spectrum make it hard to learn what’s okay and what’s not okay when it comes to lying.
- Children receive mixed messages from parents and family members. Children are just learning social norms which are quite complicated, those around them often models a little bending of the truth. Children get shut down for being too honest.
- For children reality is not fixed. Children not only hope that something magical can happen. They believe it’s a possibility. Until about age 7/8, children often see a blurry line between reality and fantasy and don’t know that reality is permanently fixed. They think wishful thinking really works. They believe they can change the facts, so if they say they did not do it, they wish they did not do it and are trying to make it true.
- Young children are developing their cognitive abilities through using their imagination and through experimentation. So, when they are lying, they are engaging in imaginative play. Young children through their active imaginations are actually developing their cognitive abilities.
- Lying is also a way to push the boundaries and see what can be done and what not. It is a way to learn about the world and develop skills.
- Some kids can’t control their lying. They may not even realize they’re doing it. That can happen when kids have trouble with self-control , organizing their thoughts, or thinking about consequences. For these kids, frequent lying isn’t uncommon, and they usually don’t do it on purpose. In fact, they often feel really bad about it when they realize they did it. But it’s important to find out what’s behind the behavior so you can respond in the best way.
PARENTING TIPS: WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT CHILDREN LYING?
Just because lying is complex doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t address it. How you, and the world, respond to their truth-bending is how children will learn about honesty. Here are a few parenting tips to help you respond to lying, without chastising children for doing what’s largely a typical part of growing up.
- Clarify what honesty means in your family. By talking about honesty and what it means you influence your child’s behaviour. Point out real life situations.
- Reward your child for truthfulness.
- Explain the difference between fantasy and reality. This doesn’t mean minimize fantasy; it simply means help children begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Around age 4/5, children are cognitively able to think this through.
- Punishing a child for lying without understanding why he/she did it does not work. Find out what led to the lie. Depending on your child’s age, blurred lines of reality, wishful thinking, experimenting with boundaries or all of the above can be reasons why kids lie. The habit of sending a child to the room will not help them to understand what is unacceptable and what is nor how to change it. Natural consequences and a brief discussion are the best and only needed punishment.
- Be a role model. For good and for bad we are our children’s role models. If you lie, they will too. If you cheat, they will too. If you tell the truth even when it’s difficult, they will too.
- Relax and know that in the long run, it’s probably no big deal. In the end, unless children continue to lie repetitively and about significant things past age 12, know that it probably won’t become a serious child behavior problem.
- Continue to teach, model, and reward honest behavior and they’ll catch on.
- Remember honesty is the best policy.