Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

When Children Lie – How to Respond and Build Honesty

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When Children Lie - How to Respond and Build Honesty

All kids (and all adults for that matter) will at times find themselves in a glorious mess, at the hands of their own wrongdoing. With kids and teens, lies will often feature in this mess, either as a cover-up or a cause. The way we respond can strengthen our connection and nurture their honesty, or it can breathe life into the learning that lying is a handy way to deal with trouble. 

Honesty is important for their relationships, their emotional and social development, and so that we, as the adults in their lives, can know when the guard rails around them need adjusting. We can’t protect them if we don’t know what’s happening. They can’t learn the lessons from their bad decisions or misadventures if they aren’t able to talk these situations through with an adult who can guide them. 

All kids lie but my kids don’t. Seriously you guys. They don’t. 

If your small human is lying, breathe a heady exhale – they’ve reached an important developmental milestone. If your teen is lying, you can also heave a sigh of relief – it means they’re very normal.

Dr Victoria Talwar of Montreal’s McGill University has done a lot of research around children’s lying. She has found a universal pattern for lying that starts to show itself during the pre-school years. For kids who are more developmentally ahead, it will start at about age 2 or 3. This pattern has been found in different cultures and countries. 

Lying is no easy feat. For children to be able to lie, they need to be able to imagine a different reality to the one that has actually happened. Then, they have to sell that ‘fantasy reality’ to an adult well enough that the adult might buy in. 

Let me give you an example. When one of my children was about four, he needed to shut down an argument with his sister because, you know, he was losing – so he bit her. When I asked him about it, he gave me an impassioned denial. ‘No mummy. I didn’t bite her. I really did not bite her.’ I asked him how she got the purple marks on her arm, the ones in the shape of his teeth. He replied, ‘Well I did not bite her. What happened was that my mouth was open and her arm was in the way when I closed it. That’s not biting. That’s an accident.’ Ok. So now we’re dealing with a glossed-up version of the truth. You can see the cognitive and language skills this would have taken. What’s another to describe biting without using the word biting? And without making it sound bad? And how to I make it sound accidental? Or as though it was her fault? 

To be able to lie, children need social skills, communication skills and a certain level of cognitive development. They need to be aware that other people will feel differently, think differently, and want differently to them, and that they can use their words and the way they express themselves to align things more their way.

Here’s the rub though, your little one might be a clever one, but the kids who can get the hang of lying early, and are able to use this information to progress their cause, might be more likely to lie in the future. If you catch your child lying, don’t let it go on the assumption that they’ll grow out of it. What’s more likely, according to Talwar’s research, is that they’ll grow into it.

As kids get older, the size and shape of the lies change, but the rate of occurrence doesn’t. Research conducted by Dr Nancy Darling of Penn University found that 98% of teens had lied to their parents in the prior few months. Similar results have been found with thousands of kids in different countries. 

Hopefully the nature of the lying will remain harmless, (‘It’s not that I hate spinach pie. I’m just not hungry.’) Most probably it won’t, for a little while anyway. At some point, most parents will find themselves having to deal with a lie that has the punch of a heavyweight boxer. This is normal, and it’s an opportunity – some of the best lessons about honesty will come when they are knee-deep in a lie that is unravelling around them.

What do kids lie about?

Kids will lie to get out of trouble, to avoid shame, or to protect other people. As they get older, the reasons for lying are generally driven by these same motives, but the details will change.

According to Darling’s research, there are twelve things that teens tend to lie about:

  • where their money went,
  • what movie they watched,
  • who they were hanging out with,
  • whether they’d started dating,
  • what they did while their parents were at work,
  • alcohol and drug use,
  • what they wore after they left the house,
  • the level of supervision (or not) at parties,
  • what they did after school,
  • who was in the car with them (as in whether or not they were with friends who were drunk),
  • what was happening at school.

Gosh! Lying? Where DO they get this from?

Time to get real. Research has found that the average adult lies anywhere from once a day to much more. ‘Oh I’d love to come to your Perfect Mothers For Perfect Children vegan afternoon tea. And of course – I’d be happy to bring a gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, fat-free fun-free plate of something delish for the kiddos .. but … well … I’m like … going to have a doctor’s appointment that day. Soooo sorry. Pity. I would have loved to watch your little Wallace sing the Japanese national anthem. In French. While carving the Statue of Liberty out of soap. Oh well. Maybe next time. You guys have fun though. K?’

Like kids, we adults lie for all sorts of reasons and often it’s done with the best intentions. We have all been jaded by those who thinly veil rudeness and nastiness as honesty, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way but you’d look so much better if you didn’t wear red. Or black. Or anything above the knee. I’m just being honest darl.’ 

There is a subtle – oh so subtle – line between honesty and rudeness, tact and dishonesty. Plenty of smallprint. Plenty of unspoken rules. So confusing! Kids tend to be pretty black and white, and while we might justify our lies on keeping the peace, not causing trouble or protecting the feelings of someone we care about, for them, a lie is a lie is a lie. And if it’s good enough for us … 

Honesty is one of the most important values we can teach, but with it comes a how-to, full of the finer points and subtleties that come with experience, time, and a broadening acceptance of the space between right and wrong, good and bad, and how not to be a jerk – because ‘just being honest’ has been used too many times to legitimise the launching of verbal missiles.

When Children Lie – How to Respond & How to Build Honesty

  1. Listen more than you talk.

    All children want to do the right thing, but sometimes they need the freedom to make their own mistakes. Make it safe for them to explore this with you. ‘I know these things can happen sometimes. Can you talk to me about how this happened?’ Explore what they’ve learnt or what they might do differently next time. You don’t have to fix anything. Just be a steady presence and give them the space  to figure things out by.

  2. Reward truth telling.

    Provided remorse has been shown (because we don’t want to encourage psychopathy, now do we), let lesser consequences, or no consequences, be the reward for honesty. 

  3. Make lying the ‘crime’ above all others.

    Whatever happens, whatever mistakes are made, whatever stupid decisions prove to be, well, stupid, let lying be the thing that draws the heaviest consequence. ‘You’re not in trouble because you put on the zombie apocalypse movie instead of the Disney one. You’re in trouble because you lied about it’.

  4. Have them promise to tell the truth – and build them up for that.

    Talwar’s research has found that children who promised to tell the truth were more likely to be honest. When you’re getting this commitment from them, they still need to feel that their honesty will be handled gently. 

  5. Don’t overreact when they tell the truth.

    So they’ve really messed up. You’re gritting your teeth to stop yourself from yelling so loud it registers as a blip on the satellite. But – they’re telling you what they’ve done, and that’s huge. Nothing is more important. The more they can trust that you can handle the truth without losing your mind (which can be hard, I know!), the more they will trust us with the truth. It will mean the world to them if you acknowledge what it must have taken to be honest with you, ‘It must have been really difficult for you to tell me that. It means a lot to me that you had the strength and courage to do that.’

  6. For privacy.

    Respecting their privacy is a way of saying, ‘I know you have a life that is separate to me, and that’s okay. I trust you.’ When they are old enough, they will find a way to have their privacy with or without your support. If you don’t respect their right to privacy, they will take the choice out of your hands and use lies to keep you out. Of course, if you have a good reason to suspect that something is going wrong, then all bets are off. 

  7. Have fewer rules but make sure you enforce them.

    Children will be more likely to lie if they believe the rules are unfair and unnecessary. Research shows that they will be more likely to obey the rules that they believe are fair and within the rights of parents to control. These generally include rules around their health and welfare such as drinking, drugs, hitting, swearing, wearing seatbelts. When it comes to areas that are more a matter of personal taste, (music, what they wear, activities, how they spend their money, what they do with their room), let the them have some control and freedom to make their own decisions. The children of parents who do this seem to lie the least. Rather than lying about 12 things, it seems to drop as low as 5. They’ll still lie, but not about as many things, and more likely not the important ones.

  8. Consider an amnesty.

    Sometimes, the need for the truth will outweigh everything else. This is particularly the case when you suspect their safety, or the safety of one of their friends might be at risk. In these situations, your teen might be feeling shame, fear of consequences, or a need to protect their friends. Understand this, and let them know that nothing they tell you will land them in trouble. If it’s important to them that things don’t go further than you, respect that. Your loyalty is to your child more than to anyone else. If you fear someone else is at risk, talk to your child about the risks of keeping quiet and work with them to find a way to keep everyone safe that won’t compromise them. 

  9. Be alive to the pressure they’ll feel from friends – and don’t ask them to choose.

    All kids want to be liked and accepted by their peers. The drive to feel a sense of belonging to a ‘pack’ is enormous. This is evolutionary. For many animals in the wild, being excluded from the herd would have put them at the mercy of predators and the environment. It would have meant certain death. This is how it feels when our children, particularly as they get older, face the prospect of being excluded. It feels like death. The threat of this can be strong enough to sway them into making decisions that aren’t their finest. Of course, they need to learn to say ‘no’, but this is something that will need to be learned and nurtured. It took time for us to learn too. Acknowledge this and share stories of the times you also felt pressured to lie when you were younger. They need to believe that being honest with you won’t hurt them or see them cast into the social wilderness.

  10. Be open to negotiating with them.

    If your child believes that you are always unwilling to compromise, they’ll be less likely to try. One of the reasons kids lie is to avoid the hassle of the negotiation, particularly if it is something that feels important to them.Always hear their argument and try to find a win for them in there somewhere, so your teen doesn’t walk away feeling as though you have all the power and they have none. 

  11. Don’t threaten to punish them for lying.

    Research has found that kids who are punished for lying are more likely to lie in the future, than those kids who are guided towards the reasons why it’s important to tell the truth. In a study involving 372 kids between 4 and 8, researchers found that kids were more likely to lie when they were threatened with being punished, and more likely to tell the truth when they thought it would make an adult happy with them. They are learning whether or not they can trust you. It takes courage and strength to tell the truth. Whatever your child did wrong, recognise they’re pretty wonderful humans for having the strength and honesty to come to you.

  12. Don’t trap them.

    Always give them an opportunity to do the right thing and to tell the truth. They always want to, but sometimes ‘doing the right thing’ won’t be at the top of their list until it has to be. Trapping them will only lead to shame, and that won’t be good for anyone.

  13. Look for the reasons behind the lie and respond to that.

    A lie can sometimes contain the gold you need to connect with your child and understand what’s happening in his or her world. If your child is suddenly lying more often or more intensely, it may be a sign of problem behaviour and an attempt to keep control over something that feels out of control. Kids will only do what makes sense for them. They don’t want to disconnect and they don’t want to disappoint you. They never do the wrong thing just for the sake of it. Their behaviour will always be an attempt to meet a need. The need will always be a valid one, even if their behaviour is a massively messy attempt to go about it. Listen to their words, pick up on their feelings and let that guide your response.

  14. Be okay with a bit of conflict.

    In Darling’s research, it was found that in families where there was less lying, there was also more arguing and complaining. What’s vital here is that the child felt that they were able to speak openly and honestly. Curiously, twice as many adults (46%) as teens (23%) rated the arguments as more damaging. For teens, even if they weren’t agreed with, being heard was important. Of course it is possible to have too much conflict, but what matters is the way it was resolved.

And finally …

Honesty is something that has to be nurtured. Things would be so much easier if it came with a switch, but that’s not how the greatest lessons are learned, or how the strongest values and built. One of the most important things we can do to make this happen is to build them up as people who are strong and brave enough to tell the truth. This will always work better than tearing them down when they get it wrong. 

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4 Comments

Larissa

Thank you for this article, particularly the illustration of the processes it takes for a young child to lie, and the reasons for when adults might lie.

I am wondering whether it is worth exploring further, the incentive that many children have to lie – which is to avoid a punishment. You’ve touched on this with the point that children lie to ‘get out of trouble’.

What if parents adopted a parenting approach that did not involve punishment (or reward) at all? What if parents instead put their energy into building a solid, trusting relationship with their child, where their child respected the expectations of the parents, because the parents respected the child?

In this scenario, I think a child would be less likely to lie, because:
– they know they won’t get into ‘trouble’, but will have their own internal discipline to help them repair whatever has happened;
– they won’t be afraid of being shamed, because their parents respect them (and so would not shame them), and wouldn’t put a child down for making a mistake
– they would trust their parents enough to share with them their concern about their friend.

My experience, in putting such an approach to practice (informed by Parent Effectiveness Training – P.E.T.) is that, if I trust my children and respect them, then there is less need to for a child to lie (hide) things from their parent.

Thank you again – I find your articles valuable and thought provoking.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thanks Larissa. I’m so pleased you find the articles useful. And yes – one of the main points of the article is that relationship and connection are so important, and lie at the heart of trust, communication and raising little humans into healthy, well-adjusted big ones. The more we can make it safe for them to come to us, even when they do the wrong thing, the more likely it is that they will come to us to seek our support and influence, and that our relationship with them will be honest, close and open. Connection will always beat control.

Reply
Meenakshi

Very well written article. The strategies mentioned are very workable and great. I am going to use some of these and concentrate on as you rightly said building them brave and strong. Thanks! For sharing this beautiful article.

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