Why does my child lie?

When it comes to teaching your kids how to be honest, know that you, as a parent, play a vital role in demonstrating honesty and showing how to value telling the truth.

Lies and truth-telling are an intricate social etiquette, further complicated by the fact that adults tell lies; white lies, good lies and bad lies. It takes time for children to mature enough to grasp the difference between appropriate and inappropriate lies and truth; to know when brutal honesty hurts someone’s feelings, when white lies are okay and when being dishonest is dangerous or disrespectful.

While you will probably never be able to abolish lying altogether, teaching your child how to value honesty will help them choose to be truthful more often, and prevent them from becoming dependent on lies to achieve a desired result.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that children and adults alike lie to:

  • Get out of trouble
  • Impress someone
  • Gain something
  • Protect someone
  • Be polite

Children will start to experiment with lying as part of their communication development and test different lies and truths as they grow. Knowing what to expect for your child’s age will enable you to provide the right amount of encouragement and influence to help encourage truth telling and respond in an effective way.

2 to 4 years old

At this early stage calling a child out on a lie directly may just lead to an intense battle of wills. Young children are not only learning and experimenting with emotions and language but also boundaries, independence and the knack of getting their own way.

Understanding that some lies (adult’s and children’s) are more about creativity and fiction than anything else, made up of dreams, fantasies, wishes, daydreams and fears, will help soften the seriousness of lies with toddlers and pre-schoolers.

Recognising creativity and playing along in a light-hearted manner might help address lying without causing a power struggle. Instead of saying, ‘I think you’re lying’, play with it, treat it like an investigation and playfully reveal the truth through cracking the codes and opening doubt on their concrete certainty.

Rather than punishing lies, reward honesty and stress the importance of telling the truth as your child gets stronger with language skills.

5 to 8 years old

Early school years means your child gets social exposure to a class load of peers who will teach all kinds of social interactions you may not like, or want. As well as coming into contact with other kids who lie, your child will now have more to lie for, like getting out of homework, ditching boring lunch, or avoiding trouble or embarrassment when called out in class.

A child now will be testing the boundaries of lying to see what they can get away with at home. Continue to lead by example and tell the truth yourself, that includes being truthful in any conversations they overhear as well as when you are talking to your child directly.

While it might be difficult sometimes to know for sure which are lies and which are truths there will be times when it is obvious. When this happens speak to them seriously about the consequences of lying and continue to promote the value of telling the truth.

When you are unsure, confront them lightly if you suspect a lie and give them an opportunity to come clean first, something like, ‘Are you being honest about that or might something else have happened?’

In terms of teaching your child to be polite instead of telling the blunt truth, ask them to think of positives and talk about those, rather than negatives that might be hurtful to the other person.

9 to 12 year old

Preteens know the effect and consequences of lying more than ever. Their lies might be more ardent and better covered but are usually followed with incredible guilt, either for having been dishonest or for the consequences if they get found out.

Now you can be straightforward and serious when you talk to your child about the importance of honesty and make it known you will not tolerate lying. If they understand the consequences for telling the truth will be lighter than if they are caught out in a lie they will be ready to open up to you and live more honestly. In return be sure to thank them for their honesty and let them know it is appreciated, possibly even lessening the punishment somewhat to further promote honesty, otherwise they might start to think they would have been better off hiding the information from you.

Again, stress the importance of compliments over harsh truths, so that you are not suggesting they lie to make another person feel better, simply that it’s courteous to highlight truthful positives.

The truth on honesty

The most important aspect is that you, as well as the other role models in your child’s life, are honest and open about events and situations, this sends the clearest message to your child about the value of honesty. Consequently, when you are dishonest, even for small white lies, you send an equally clear message that lying is acceptable and okay to do.

When your children have a close relationship with you and believe they can approach you for support and guidance without consequence, then they are more likely to be truthful and honest about what they are going through.

If you catch your child out in a lie it’s important to consider why the lie was necessary. Were they afraid, embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, hurt or isolated? Having a talk about the feelings they were trying to hide is just as important as explaining the need for honesty. While you do want to nip lies in the bud, the most important thing is that you cherish and nurture your child as they grow and discover social interaction and etiquette.

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