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Lying: Liar, Liar, pants on fire!

Text Box:  Why does my child lie?

Children younger than age 5 or 6 frequently blur the line and can have difficulty making the distinction between fantasy and reality.  Beginning at about age three children tend to become more purposeful in their efforts to be “less than truthful,” (although they are usually not very convincing).  For example, let’s say you notice the cookie jar is empty and your child has crumbs all over his face, but when questioned he tells you, “I didn’t eat the cookies.”  Somewhere a transition occurs from being “less than truthful” to “lying.”  “Lying” seems to have a strong negative connotation and implies willful deceit or manipulation.  Wherever your perception lies (pun intended), here are some important things to remember about lying: 

  • Everyone does it (to some extent or another) so don’t get too high and mighty when your children lie. 
  • Children may lie for any number of reasons.  Children brought up in a loving home may lie so that they don’t disappoint Mommy or Daddy after they have done something wrong.  Children brought up with unreasonably high standards of behavior may lie out of fear and to avoid harsh discipline.  Children may lie as a means of “escaping” into a fantasy world (for however briefly) when they have not met demands (e.g., “Did you clean up your room?”).

The purpose of Lying

William Shakespeare wrote, “Nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”  You may perceive your child’s lying as “just plain wrong” and your instinct may be to punish, but remember that lying has many purposes, and you can use lying as an opportunity to teach your child something positive. 

  • Lying shows that your child knows he has done something wrong (and therefore lying is evidence that his conscience is functioning!). 
  • Mark Twain said that there are three kinds of lies, "White lies, damn lies, and statistics."  While it is not likely that your child will use statistics to manipulate you, it is important to bear in mind the importance of the lie – was it a “white lie” or a “damn lie”?  It is considered a “social skill” to be polite (or at least not say things to embarrass others), yet might this not be construed as a “white lie”?  Did your child’s lie simply protect himself, or did it harm others?  If so, was the harm inadvertent or intentional?  These are issues that need to be considered in a developmentally appropriate manner with your child.

“What can I do about my child’s lying?”  Here’s A.T.I.P.

 

Avoid:

Creating an environment where your child feels safe and “unthreatened” can help your child avoid lying.  

 

Teach:

When you discover that your child has lied, immediately tell him in a matter-of-fact tone that you know that he is not telling the truth. You can use statements such as, “I want you to tell me the truth now” or “I tell you the truth because telling the truth is important so that we can trust/believe each other."  You can use “role-playing” games (in a nurturing format) to teach the value of lying (e.g., try to demonstrate to your child how it may feel if you promised him something, but lied and failed to deliver).

Ignore:

If the “lie” is inconsequential or simply an expression of silly fantasy (e.g., your child insists that he flew from the roof to the car), you may choose to ignore.

Punish:

Of course, “teaching” is considered to be the preferred way to respond to your child’s lying, but what are you to do if your child continues to “dig his heels in,” and sticks to or expands the frequency and magnitude of his lies.  If the lies are not “ignorable” and your child rejects your efforts to teach more appropriate behavior, some version of “punishment” may be an option of last resort.  Be careful, though, because the relationship between punishment and lying is tricky.  Harsh punishment is considered to not be effective, and is, therefore, not recommended.  Perhaps removal of privileges would be effective. 

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