Psychologist and mother Eleanor Mackey shares tips on how to address lies.
Now that L is 4, I feel like I have moved into a realm of parenting with different challenges than before. One of these is experiencing my child clearly lying about an unusual range of topics. For example, she has been vehemently telling her friends that she has already lost some of her teeth, which is not true. When we tell her this is not true, she argues firmly that it is. Sometimes we aren’t clear on which details of a story are truthful and which are not, especially since her stories about events at school change in each retelling. I decided to do a little research to see how normal this is.
Indeed, research suggests that lying is very common in young children and starts early – as young as 2 years old and more commonly by age 3 1/2. Lying is an important part of navigating social situations, so it serves a purpose. For example, kids lie to protect friends’ feelings, or to advance themselves socially by bragging about accomplishments or possessions. They also lie to get out of trouble.
But be heartened, parents of skilled liars, because research also shows that lying takes some advanced social and cognitive skills!
Kids’ early experiences with lying set the stage for how often they use it later. If they use it successfully early on, they will continue with this strategy even as the stakes of lying are raised. Therefore, the key as parents is to:
- Recognize why a child is lying so that you can help them reach an end goal without needing a lie. Be very aware of times that you are lying to, or in front of, your child - and minimize these.
- Be a good role model!
- Respond carefully to situations in which your child may lie or is tempted to lie.
So, what can we do to respond to these situations? First of all, try not to put your child in a situation where he will want to lie or could benefit from a lie. If you know your child did something wrong, let him know and correct it. For example, asking “Did you hit your sister even when I told you not to?” will set him up to lie. Instead, say, “I know that you hit your sister even though I asked you not to. Hitting is not appropriate. If you are mad, do X.” This avoids the need to lie in the first place.
If you see your child lying frequently for social reasons, help him understand that lying is not a good idea, but you can see that he want his friends to think he are special. Help him identify some things that he can tell his friends without having to lie.
If you want your child to tell you the truth but are afraid he might lie to avoid getting into trouble, tell him beforehand that you will be proud of him for telling the truth and let him know how that might benefit him. Your child may still get in trouble but get a lesser consequence, or have the pleasure of hearing how proud you are that he told the truth and having the consequence waived (depending on the severity of the transgression).
What’s the worst lie you ever told as a youngster? How did your parents respond?