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Many of us remember our parents' reaction when we were caught in a lie or remember when our children told us a lie. It often comes as a shock to parents. The reality is that all children lie at some point. It's a normal part of a development.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains, the act of lying demonstrates that their conscience is working. While it can be upsetting when kids lie or stretch the truth, the reasons they do so vary by age. And, how we react can make a big difference on their future behavior.
It's important to keep in mind that preschoolers don't understand that lying is dishonest. They have rich imaginations and may say things like, "I can run as fast as a cheetah." In some cases they may be expressing something they wish were true. Rather than say, "No, you can't. You're exaggerating," a parent could say, "You wish you could run that fast, don't you?" Kids are beginning to learn the difference between fantasy and reality, and listening to their stories can help them feel supported while still helping them to distinguish between truth and fiction.
Another reason young children lie is to get something they want or to avoid something — not unlike adults. But again, young children don't understand why that's wrong. As parents, it's important to start teaching kids to tell the truth. When a child lies, be careful not to overreact. Instead, explain that lying is wrong and offer a simple explanation for why — telling the truth helps us trust and believe what someone is saying.
As kids grow, they begin to fully understand that lying is wrong, but they may lie for a variety of reasons:
To avoid punishment ("No, I didn't break the vase.")
To impress others and boost their self-esteem ("Once when we were on vacation, we met [sports star or other celebrity].")
To get something they want ("Mom said I could.")
To protect others — also known as "white lies" ("The picture you drew is pretty.")
One of my children (not saying who) wrote in their non-fiction journal that their mother was an all-star basketball player in high school. This is very far from the truth. Research on kids and white lies has revealed an interesting issue — children are motivated to not tell the truth because they feel empathy and compassion toward another person.
In one study, children were shown two pictures drawn by an adult — one that was carefully drawn and one intentionally not drawn well. If the person who drew the picture didn't show any pride or care about the work, kids were truthful in saying whether the picture was good. If, on the other hand, the person who drew the picture acted sad about being a bad artist, most of the kids would assure the person that the picture wasn't really that bad. What the study suggested is that when faced with a choice between being honest or being kind, by the age of 7, kids are more likely to choose being kind.
Choosing kindness doesn't justify stretching the truth, but there is something to be said about kids' natural inclination toward kindness. When it comes to truth telling, there is also an unfortunate reality parents have to accept — that kids learn to lie from us. It might be they hear a parent say, "Sorry, we have plan," when there really aren't plans, or that someone "isn't feeling well" to avoid going out. When kids hear the important adults in their life (parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, etc.) not being honest, they may be more likely to lie.
What to do when kids lie
Just as when kids are young, parents should continue to talk about why telling the truth is so important and how it helps maintain trust in a relationship. There should also be clear, specific and consistent rules about lying — and try to distinguish between lying and behavior. If a child misbehaves but is honest about it, try to acknowledge that. It could be thanking them for being honest and having a lesser (or even no) punishment.
Model honest behavior for kids, even though it can sometimes be difficult. If kids catch parents lying to them, it's not only awkward but undermines everything that parents have been trying to impress on their kids.
Don't try to trap kids in a lie by asking whether they did something you already know the answer to. And don't try to force a confession or punish a child for something you're not certain they actually did. Children will lie if they feel backed into a corner. And trapping or coercing kids can undermine their trust in you. Stay calm, even though it can be upsetting. The AAP shares that parents who react harshly and in a very negative way may actually push their child into feeling that she or he needs to lie repeatedly in order to protect him or herself. And some studies suggest that children will become even better at hiding the truth.
Figure out why kids are lying. Consider what kinds of lies a child tells — is it to avoid work, boost their self-esteem, out of fear, or because they feel overwhelmed by pressures at school? If there's a pattern it may be there's an underlying issue that needs to be addressed — like helping to increase a child's self-esteem, figuring out how to help manage school stress, or taking a reality check to figure out why he or she might be afraid of telling the truth.
How to tell when kids are lying
Most parents have a sense for when their kids aren't quite on the up and up, but there are a few signs to look for:
Facial expressions — Do they look nervous? Children who are telling the truth are generally relaxed and their faces often show it. When kids knowingly stretch the truth they may feel anxious and nervous and their faces may show it. Keep in mind, however, that if they are nervous about your reactions because they're admitting to misbehavior, they may also appear somewhat anxious — so keep in mind what's being said is as important as how it's being said.
Rehearsed explanations — Does the explanation sound like it's been planned out? Try asking questions to see if and how the story changes.
Consistent statements — While kids often jump from thought to thought in telling their stories, there is usually consistency in what information they're sharing. If statements don't make sense or seem to be contradictory that may be a sign the full truth isn't being shared.
According to the AAP, if a child has a history of chronic lying it is important to seek help from a counselor or mental-health professional. It could be the child hasn't developed a strong conscience that understands right and wrong. The behavior could also be a cry for help. Your child's physician can help you figure out the most appropriate resources to help.