Somewhere, sometime, during your child’s school years, he’ll open his sweet mouth and out will pop a whopper. You can count on it. You can also expect your child’s lies to become more sophisticated and plausible as he gets older. But here’s the good news: In the vast majority of cases, your child knows the difference between right and wrong, or he wouldn’t bother to lie. And if you can pinpoint the reasoning behind his fib, you’ll be much better able to devise a preventative strategy. Here are the most common types of lies kids tell and what to do about them.
In the early grade-school years, some children still fabricate elaborate stories. They may not quite discern the line between reality and fantasy yet, or they may be trying to get attention. Most children outgrow this phase by age 8 and usually can be counted on to tell the truth.
Some older children continue to exaggerate, sometimes embellishing their stories so much that they’re almost completely untrue. If your child engages in this kind of bragging, he may lack confidence and feel a need to pump himself up. Maybe he feels peer pressure to be good at something or thinks he has to prove himself to be accepted by a particular clique. It’s important not to ridicule your boasting child, or his self-esteem will sink even more. Show him that you appreciate him just as he is, and praise his legitimate accomplishments. As for the actual lie, deflect the conversation away from it if you can, or calmly tell your child that you know what he said isn’t true and that you love him even if he didn’t do a triple somersault off the pommel horse in gymnastics class today.
If your child lies to someone else in front of you, don’t show him up in public, but wait until you’re alone with him. Then gently explain that you know what he said was untrue, and that concocting stories can have disastrous consequences.
This might be a good time to tell your child the story of the boy who cried wolf, or read a book about lying together. A classic is Sam, Bangs and Moonshine by Evaline Ness, in which Sam’s refusal to distinguish between fantasy and reality almost causes her to lose her dearest friends. For younger kids, The Big, Fat Enormous Lie by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat with illustrations by David M. McPhail is a pictorial look at the weight of guilt that can accompany a lie, while Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire! by Gordon Korman is a hilarious take on the disastrous consequences of schoolyard bragging, suitable for 7 and up.
The most common kind of lie told by kids is a cover for wrongdoing. The goal is to avoid unpleasantness or punishment. Children learn this tactic at a relatively early age and perfect it as the years go by.
Lies told to escape discipline can put you in a difficult position, because if you punish your child every time he admits to doing something wrong, he may decide he’s better off lying because sometimes he gets away with it. But if you don’t punish him, the behavior won’t change. And it gets even more complicated if you actually punish the child for lying as well as for the original infraction. The trick is to find a balance between being permissive and being punitive. According to one study, parents who used moral principles to explain that lying is wrong reduced the frequency of their children’s lying, while punishment for lying increased the frequency of lies.
When your child concocts a cover-up, try taking the following steps:
- Stay calm, and don’t take it personally
- Determine his motive for lying
- Explain why it’s wrong to lie
- Punish the motive, not the lie
- Hand out a reasonable punishment
- Tell your child that you love him anyway
- Encourage him to try honesty in the future
Always accompany a punishment with reassurance that your current disappointment doesn’t affect how deeply you cherish him.
The Lazy Lie
Kids often take the path of least resistance by telling their parents what they want to hear: “No, I don’t have any homework left to do.” “No, I’m not watching Howard Stern on cable.” “Yes, I cleaned my room.”
These falsehoods may seem benign, but if your child has reached the age of 8, you’d be wise not to let lazy lies slide or he’ll begin to think honesty doesn’t matter, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The organization’s advice: Have a serious talk, reminding your child about the importance of telling the truth and the repercussions of lying.
Gillian McNamee, an educational psychologist at the Chicago-based Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, suggests that you deal with the lie by addressing the behavior your child is glossing over. You should therefore choose a penalty that suits the misdeed. If your child said he’d done all his homework, for example, tell him that he’ll have to show you his completed assignments every evening from now on. If it’s a TV offense, your child will have to ask for permission to watch or will get limited viewing hours. If his room’s a mess, he’ll always have to tidy up before a friend can come over.
The White Lie
Parents are often amazed at how soon children catch on to the concept of the “social lie” — the little fib that lets the teller save face or spare someone else’s feelings. Even a child as young as 6 may artificially compliment a schoolmate’s shoes or hesitate to tell a friend he doesn’t share his enthusiasm for Arthur or Batman.
Of course it’s important that children learn empathy and how to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. But you need to be sure that your child understands the difference between a well-intended distortion of the truth — saying, “Thank you! I love it!” when you receive a duplicate gift, or assuring Grandma, “Your hair looks great — no, really!” — and telling a lie that could hurt somebody or serves no purpose but to toot your own horn.
With girls, parents have another reason to be watchful for fibs told just to be nice. Some girls get the message that being nice is paramount, even if it calls for being dishonest about their feelings. In an effort to be liked by all, a young girl may bottle up strong feelings and replace them with silence or a web of pretty lies. For girls of this age to develop self-esteem and be emotionally strong and spirited, they must learn to value their own responses and opinions and to express them without self-reproach. Make sure your child knows that her emotions and tastes are not only valid but qualities that distinguish her delightfully from the crowd. Help her to find ways to say what she really feels, thinks, and wants while supporting a friend’s prerogative to feel and like different things.
The Cry for Help
Sometimes children lie because they’re terribly afraid of disappointing their parents or losing their love. While it’s healthy for your child to be developing a conscience and hence to regret bad behavior, you don’t want him to feel that he loses a bit of your regard every time he makes a mistake. Children also may lie because they’re overwhelmed at school or in their social lives and need help in dealing with the pressure.
If you suspect your child is deceiving you for one of these reasons, have a heart-to-heart with him, encouraging him to express his anxieties. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Caring for Your School-Age Child, you may need to consider lowering your expectations so he can achieve success in more manageable steps, which will strengthen his self-confidence. Reassure your child, too, that you’ll always love him, no matter what he says or does. If your child’s lying seems in danger of becoming a chronic problem, make an appointment with a family therapist or social worker.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Children and Lying. November 2004.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. 1999. Bantam Books.