Let’s start by looking at why children lie. There are a variety of reasons. Let’s start with younger children in the pre-school years. Toddlers and pre-schoolers are often live between the real world and the fantasy world. Young children are often watching and being read books that are full of fantasy. They are in the process of developing their imagination which is something that parents should encourage and promote. With this may come situations like your three-year old telling you that the donkey climbed up a tree and needs to be rescued. Statements like that are more a product of an active imagination than a child telling a lie to be rebellious. Often young children that are immersed in the fantasy of books and television often find the truth is just too boring. A little later we will talk about how to separate fantasy and reality, without losing the benefits of a great imagination.
As children get a little older they separate reality and imagination a little more and begin to lie for other reasons. A common one is fear. When children are scared of the consequences of their actions, they often lie to cover up. They often choose to lie in order to cover up or to protect somebody else. I’m sure many teachers have experience with this, as it’s not uncommon to find children or teens telling fibs in order to protect their peers.
Some children lie simply to avoid an unpleasant task. To a 7 year old, perhaps having to brush their teeth every morning before they get to their toys, tv or breakfast is considered an ‘unpleasant’ task.
It often happens that children lie by mistake. I know this sounds funny, but sometimes lies seem almost involuntary, as if they just slip out. Especially if your child gets caught in a misdeed and fear kicks in. “Who broke my favorite coffee mug?” and your child answers ‘not me’ without the skip of a beat.
The last but definitely not least reason that I’m going to mention, is that children often lie for love, approval and because they like to impress people. I’m sure at some point you have heard your child brag or boast about something and it sounds slightly embellished. I’m sure many of you can think of adults that do the same as well!
Now that we’ve discussed some of the reasons why children lie, let’s talk about some lie prevention techniques. I say lie prevention techniques because you can’t really do one thing to stop your child from lying. But what you can do is create an environment where they are less likely to lie and where lying is a less rewarding activity.
Let’s start with our imaginative little ones. It’s important that we encourage the development of imagination in young children, but we need to help them understand when it is okay to use their imagination and when they need to tell the truth. Start by talking about the fact that there are times when mommy and daddy need to know the truth. Let them know that when you say it’s time to tell the truth, that you mean it and you have your reasons for it. Let them know that there are times to let their imagination run wild. Encourage story telling. Set aside time for them to share their stories and perhaps you can write them down in a special book so that you can go back and re-visit the stories. Encourage acting and dramatic play. Having a few clothes in a dress up box, or encouraging your child to make up their own little play, is a great way to let them know that imagination isn’t a bad thing, but that there is a time for it and a time for truth.
As I already mentioned, many lie as a way of staying out of trouble, or that is the way they see it in their eyes. They see that if they can get away with the lie that there won’t be consequences, but if they tell the truth there are likely to be consequences. So how to we get our children out of this.
Let’s look at the cross examination technique. Many parents begin a full fledge cross examination if their child has done something wrong or if they have caught their child in a lie. It’s unrealistic for me to say that you shouldn’t question your child, but it is all in the way you do things. Remember that when you are finding out about an event that has occurred, the key is that your child needs to communicate with you. Many children shut down once they feel as though they are being grilled. They have trouble understanding which questions to answer and which ones are rhetorical, as often when parents are mad their voices are raised and there are a lot of words coming out of their mouth.
Make your goal to have your child open up to you. Children and teens often see lies as a survival technique and one little lie is something that continues to be compounded. When your child has misbehaved, don’t make it your goal to trap them in a lie. I know it is appealing, but try and think of the bigger purpose. Let’s say if your child comes home with a black eye. It does not work to scream at them saying, ‘I swear you will not see the light of day for weeks if you got into a fight today, did you get into a fight at school today?’ Try something more like. ‘Wow…What happened? Let’s sit down so you can tell me about this.’ Now I know some of you may be thinking that this may be too soft of an approach, but this in NO way implies that you are not still providing a consequence for getting into a fight. You are simply finding out the details, encouraging your child to be honest, and helping them realize that they can come to you for anything. Despite the fact that they will have consequences, it is clear that it is a ‘better’ consequence than if they had chosen to lie. At least you will be more likely to get the truth.
Essentially, it’s important to remember these two steps if your child has confessed and told you the truth about a misdeed.
1. Thank them for the truth and give positive reinforcement for their sense of ethics.
2. Deal with the misdeed by applying an appropriate consequence.
When we do number 2 without number one, we aren’t showing our children that they have indeed made a good choice by telling the truth. This is especially important with young children. You want them to grow up to be ethical people, and there will be times when lying may be the easier option, but it is not the ethical one.
Make it clear that you are dealing with the behavior and that you are not reprimanding for telling the truth.
All this being said, when you child is telling a lie, spend a little time to be sure that it is a lie before you scold them. For a child that aims to tell the truth and is telling the truth, the feeling that their parent is not believing them can be devastating, and can make them feel that telling the truth isn’t necessarily the best option.