“My other mom lives down the street in that green house and she lets me play with the kitchen scissors all the time.” –told by Nicolas, age 4.
Children lie, tell fibs, stretch a tale and tattle-tale. Lying, is 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 in 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.
“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 stupid 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.
“At my friends house their mom said I can have ten pieces of candy and don’t need to brush 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 families’ values. In this case, “oh ten pieces of candy would be delicious and tooth brushing can take a while but it’s just not healthy for you and I care about you and your teeth. So how about two pieces of candy and we can sing a song while we brush teeth?” or “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 ok to stick to your values and 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 your child or tell them their wishes are unimportant. Unless you suspect that a lie pertains to some serious matter like injury or damage to property, avoid threating 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.” 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 do: If you know for a fact 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. Asking in a sincere way, “What can you tell me about this broken vase?” can help start a dialogue. If you have encouraged your child to tell the truth in the past and not punished your child, it is likely that they will eventually come out with the truth. If you have used punishment in the past, it’s never too late to look at positive alternatives, go ahead and explain to your child that you value and welcome honesty and you will not be punishing your child for telling the actual truth. Either way, follow-through with your words (otherwise it would be modeling how to lie) and then together you can find an appropriate solution. For instance, cleaning up the glass together, taking a trip to the store to replace the vase etc…
What to avoid: Calling your child a liar or demanding the truth and immediately punishing is likely to teach your child to just be sneakier and cleverer the next time around. Avoid phrases like “stop being a liar, tell me what happened or else….” or “tell me why you did this right now and then you are grounded until tomorrow.” This negativity and shame creates a very vicious cycle of lies and then more lies based on fear of repeated punishment.
Peace & Be Well,