Children will lie, tell fibs, stretch a tale and tattle-tale—it’s actually a sign of intelligence. Nevertheless, lying is sometimes inappropriate and as parents it can be difficult to deal with lies.
When our children lie, it can lead to feelings of frustration, doubt, anger, confusion or even shame. Once the lie is out there, it can be difficult to know how to proceed.
To help children learn the value of honesty and integrity, aside from modeling these very values in daily interactions, it is also helpful to understand the different types of lies, why children lie and what reactions can be helpful or hurtful.
Not all lies are created equal
Lies can come in many shapes and forms—fantasy, wishful thinking, a way to deal with hurt feelings, or the hopes of avoiding consequences and punishment.
What they all have in common is the fact that lies are words strung together to create a reality in your child’s mind and world. Children are not always lying to be deceitful, dishonest or bad. Recognizing the type of lie your child is telling can be a really powerful window into your child’s world and give you the very tools to best deal with the situation at hand.
Children lie as a means of exploring fantasy and their imagination
“I just saw a hippopotamus cross the street and put on a purple hat and blue sneakers” or “There is a space alien living inside my closet and he likes to eat pizza and chips.” These lies are fantasies, stories, imaginative play at its very best! These types of lies are commonly told by preschoolers and are an exploration of reality and fantasy.
What to do: These lies can be left alone or simply used to fuel an imaginative conversation. Asking questions like “And what else does the alien like to eat?” or “Did the hippo also have socks on?” Show your child that you are interested in their world and help them develop their imagination.
What to Avoid: Try not to tell your child they are being ridiculous or silly and avoid phrases like, “There is no such thing, quit lying” as it can crush their creativity and these fibs are actually very healthy expressions of play.
Children tell lies as expressions of wishful thinking
“At my friend’s house, their mom said I can have 10 pieces of candy and don’t need to brush my teeth.” Such lies are reflections of what a child is wishing for, basically an alternate reality where the child’s ideas and will is in charge.
What to do: Acknowledge the ideas behind the lies while also offering alternatives that are empathetic and reflect your values.
In this case it might sounds like, “Oh 10 pieces of candy would be delicious and tooth brushing can take a while. It’s just not healthy for you, I care about you and your teeth. How about two pieces of candy and we can sing a song while we brush teeth?”
“Ten pieces of candy—that sure would be a lot to eat at once, in our family we try to eat only the very healthiest of foods, so how about this piece of fruit leather as a treat instead?”
It’s perfectly okay to stick to your values and set a limit. What is important is to recognize your child’s wishes and communicate that so he knows you are listening.
What to avoid: Try not to lecture or tell your child their wishes are unimportant. Unless you suspect that a lie pertains to some serious matter like injury or damage to property, avoid threatening to check up with the other person in the story, in this case, the other mom.
Lying to avoid punishment and or consequences
Often children will lie to get their way, to make sure the outcome is to their favor or most commonly to avoid being punished. “I found that vase already broken when I came into the room,” for example.
A common sign that the story offered is a lie is that it goes on and on without any prompting. “I suppose the wind from that window over there could have knocked it down, I actually went ahead and closed it up and drew the curtains shut to avoid anything else getting knocked down…”
What to avoid when your child tells a lie
Calling your child a liar or demanding the truth and immediately punishing is likely to teach your child to just be sneakier the next time around. Avoid phrases like, “Stop being a liar and tell me what happened….” or, “Tell me why you did this right now and then you are grounded until tomorrow.”
That approach creates a very negative cycle of communication. It’s likely that your child will tell more lies to avoid any kind of punishment.
There is a more positive and helpful way to help your child learn to tell the truth.
What to do when you know your child has told a lie
If you know that your child is lying and they have acted in a way that has broken, destroyed or otherwise harmed something or someone it can be really beneficial to just listen at first.
Ask in a sincere way, “What can you tell me about this broken vase?” to start a dialogue. If you have encouraged your child to tell the truth in the past it is likely that they will once again cooperate with you.
If you have used punishment in the past, it’s never too late to look at Go ahead and explain to your child that you value and welcome honesty. Make it even more clear that you will not be punishing your child for telling the truth, even if they admit to having done something wrong.
The next step is to follow-through with your words (otherwise it would be modeling how to lie) and find an appropriate solution with your child. How can you help your child repair the situation? Can your child fix or replace the broken item? How can you encourage your child to make amends for telling a lie and to whoever may have been hurt by the lie?
Trust your child’s ability to learn the value of honesty, problem solving and to do better next time.
Originally published by Ariadne Brill on positiveparentingconnection.net.