Kimberly wants her children to be honest, but sometimes she unintentionally models lying or responds to lies in ways that make matters worse. For example, When a sales person calls, Kimberly has her children tell them she is not home. When she’s at a restaurant, she lies about her children’s ages to let them eat off the kids menu. When she is given extra change, she keeps it. 

Kimberly is surprised when she finds out her older son has been lying to her about going to a friend’s house after school and instead has been riding his bike to the park to play soccer.

It was a fluke she even found out.  She had been at the dentist and she passed the park on her way home.  

Now Kimberly feels hurt and betrayed that her son would deliberately lie to her.  If he has been lying about this, what else has he been lying about?

Do you ever wonder, “Why do children lie?” Especially when there seems to be no reason for them to lie?  In order to answer that question, you first need some insights about lying and some practical tips for preventing and responding to lies in ways that teach truthfulness.

What Is a Lie?

Dictionary.com defines a lie as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.”

Paul Ekman, author of Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness (p.14, 1991, Penguin Books) goes one step further by saying, “There isn’t much difference between saying something false and concealing the truth. Both are lies. The purpose is the same — to deliberately mislead.”

Given these definitions even little white lies we make to spare others’ feelings, excuses we give to get out of a jam, and fictional stories, like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, are all technically lies.

Is Lying Ever Okay?

Ekman’s research shows most parents think two kinds of lies are acceptable (p. 17-18):

  1. To keep children safe, such as telling children it’s okay to lie if they are at a party where there is drinking or if a stranger tries to get them to follow them.
  2. To surprise someone later with something nice, like a surprise party.

Most people also think it’s okay to lie to spare someone’s feelings or if the whole truth could be damaging for a child to know, such as “your father is in prison for killing your mother.” In these situations, however, you can still be truthful and tactful or withhold some of the details until the child is developmentally capable of handling the full truth.

When Do Children Understand Lying? 

Children develop their understanding of lying and truthfulness slowly, as they move through developmental stages. Two age periods are especially important in the development of truthfulness. One is somewhere around age three or four, when children can tell a deliberate lie. Adolescence is the other crucial period, because teens are capable of understanding that lying destroys trust. Not everyone reaches the final stage and many adults never go beyond the second stage (ages 6-8 years’ old)!

Preventing Lies

You can often prevent children lying by:

  • Teaching the value of truthfulness  repetitively, not only after children already have lied.
  • Handling mistakes calmly and using them as opportunities to learn.
  • Questioning children in ways that encourage truthfulness, rather than trying to trap them in a lie.
  • Reassuring children that you won’t be as angry if they tell the truth.
  • Not punishing truth telling. The consequences for coming clean should never be so severe that it’s worth it to the child to take the risk and lie.
  • Acknowledging children’s courage when they tell the truth, especially when it was difficult.

Are We Really Good Role Models?

Unfortunately, conversations about truthfulness aren’t enough to set a child on the path of permanent honesty.  You must tell the truth yourself, even when it’s not convenient or makes you “look bad.”  You may think you don’t fit this criterion, but if you are honest with yourself, you may discover you lie more often than you think!

In addition to the examples already given, consider the following list of lies parents often say that might accidentally teach children to lie:

  • Making up excuses to the traffic cop about why we were speeding.
  • Lie about the child’s age to gain free entry into special events.
  • Lying about an ex-spouse to gain the child’s loyalty.
  • Lie about a mistake or accident, maybe by blaming someone or something else …but the child was with you and knows the truth.
  • Lying to avoid conflict.
    • Tell children a lie to get them to behave. (Like, “I’ll leave you at the store!”)

Such commonplace deceits or what some consider “little white lies” often go unnoticed — by you — but children are sponges who soak up these unspoken lessons.

Truth Or Consequences?

Even if you teach your children to be truthful and are a good role model, it is likely that a child will lie at some point. How you respond to children lying can help determine whether they continue lying or come clean permanently.

There is not one perfect response to every lie. Instead, Use this four-step response:

  1. Identify the goal of the lie by asking yourself, “What purpose does this lie serve?”  This is a multiple-choice question. The possible answers will be one of Rudolf Dreikurs’ “Four Goals of Misbehavior”:
    • For Attention, such as telling a whopper of a story or to get a laugh.
    • For Power, to see if they can dupe others or to get something forbidden.
    • For Revenge, because they feel they were lied to.
    • Because they’ve Given Up on telling the truth; no one believes them anyway.
  2. Avoid reactions that give the goal a payoff or escalate the situation.
  3. Show children how to meet their goal without lying.
  4. Have two separate disciplines: one for the actual offense and one for lying. The discipline for lying should relate to the breakdown in trust. Children need to understand that if they lie, they are in “double trouble.”

When you understand what lying is and why children might lie, you can prevent and respond to children lying in ways that encourage truthfulness. By teaching truthfulness not only in words, but by your deeds, you can raise children who are honest, moral, truthful, tactful and trustworthy.

If you want more insights, specific information and practical tools to help you answer the question “Why do Children Lie,” get the teleseminar resource package titled “Why Kids Lie and How to Teach Truthfulness” which includes:

  • A full one-hour recording of a lively discussion parents and professionals nationwide had on many thought-provoking issues related to lying.
  • A copy of the chapter Jody Pawel wrote on lying for the book“Wisdoms for parents: From parent educators” by Robert E. Keim & Arminta L. Jacobson, (Eds.)
  • More in depth information about each section of this article

For a detailed description or to order, go to: http://parentstoolshop.org/resources/teleseminars/

To learn more about effective communication and problem solving strategies for families, take the 30-Days to Parenting Success Course. You will be less frustrated, respond more calmly and feel more confident in any parenting situation.

The best part is the 30-Day Course is free!  So what are you waiting for?  Sign up now!

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Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. Currently, she hosts the Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website, http://www.parentstoolshop.org/ 

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