The Best Way To Handle This Behavior Is Probably Not What You Think

We’re all guilty of telling little fibs now and then – in fact, for most of us, we probably tell a little white lie or two each day.

We lie to protect people’s feelings, or to keep a friend’s secret.  We may tell someone we are too busy to get together – even though we have nothing planned – or “forget” to tell our spouse that we went over budget at the grocery store.

While many times we lie for what we feel is a good reason, we must remember that our children learn from our example.  While it is not uncommon for children to lie, it may be time to examine the best way to handle it.  And we may learn something along the way ourselves.

Young children are learning to survive in the world.  This includes any form of self-preservation necessary, and lying is often done to protect ourselves.  But what are some of the other reasons that children may lie? reported:

To establish identity: One of the ways kids use lying is to establish an identity and to connect with peers, even if that identity is false. Lying can also be a response to peer pressure. Your child might be lying to his peers about things he says he’s done that he really hasn’t to make him sound more impressive.

To individuate from parents: Sometimes children and teens use lying to keep parts of their lives separate from their parents. At times it may even seem that they make up small lies about things that don’t even seem terribly important.

To get attention: When your child is little and the lies are inconsequential, this behavior may just be his way of getting a little attention. Younger children also make up stories during imaginative play, or playing “make believe.” This is not lying but a way for them to engage their imaginations and start to make sense of the world around them.

To avoid hurting other’s feelings: At some point, most people learn how to minimize things in order not to hurt other people’s feelings. But kids don’t have the same sophistication that adults do, so it’s often easier for them to lie. I think as adults, we learn how to say things more carefully; we all know how to minimize hurt. But kids don’t know how to do that. Lying is a first step toward learning how to say something more carefully.

To avoid trouble: Most kids lie at one time or another to get out of trouble. Let’s say they’ve gotten themselves into a jam because they did something they shouldn’t have done. Maybe they broke a rule or they didn’t do something they were supposed to do, like their chores. If they don’t have another way out, rather than suffer the consequences, they lie to avoid getting into trouble.

Often as parents, we don’t think about the little lies we perpetuate – but our kids certainly pick up on them. For example, “If you don’t get to bed, Santa won’t come,” or “Tell Grandma how much you like the liver and onions she made you for dinner,” are not truthful statements – but they are typically made for a positive reason.

We must model and teach our children the differences between truly lying in a harmful way – like cheating on a test — and just stretching the truth for an innocent purpose – like to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

If we catch our children in a lie, we must first examine the reasons behind it.  Are they scared or embarrassed? Did they simply forget to do something and don’t want to disappoint us?  When children are young, it is important to build a foundation of trust so that they know they can be truthful with us – that we will guide and support them through any tough situation.

And even when we do this throughout their childhood, there will be times our children lie to us, and to others.  While our first instinct may be to dole out a harsh punishment, it may be more beneficial to switch tactics.

Time Magazine reported on some positive ways to discourage lying by your kids.

By Praise: You could ask your child to say something that happened at school that is true. It is not critical what that is. This is about practice. When your child complies, praise him enthusiastically. Be specific: “That was great! You told me what happened just like I asked. Wow!” and give your child a hug or a high five. If your child says something true in the course of her day, praise that behavior too. Aim for one or two interactions like this a day. If you happen to “catch” your child in a lie, be matter-of-fact in your disapproval. Say something like, “That is not true and could get you in trouble outside of the home; it is better to say the truth.”

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By Modeling: Explicitly tell the truth. This could be about something that happened when you were a child or something that happened during the day. It need not be dramatic. Another option is to play a game at dinner. Each person tells one thing that was true that day. Again, give a little praise to the child who normally lies if she plays along.

And experts agree, harsh punishments for lying are only going to backfire.  When children are strictly punished for lying – for example, by being grounded for a long period of time – it only solidifies their desire to lie more.  They may feel you do not understand them, and therefore, will continue to keep things from you.

This does not mean that we should ignore the fact that our children tell a lie, or make it seem insignificant when they do so, but there is always an emotional reason behind a lie.  More often than not, a child is not telling a lie to hurt someone.  In fact, it is usually the opposite – to protect their feelings.

Children and teens who compulsively lie are typically those who do not feel safe in sharing their fears or feelings.  They may not feel they have anyone they can talk to and may create a wall around themselves by lying.  When harmful and prolonged lying is not worked through early on, it can lead to more negative, even dangerous, behaviors.

Because trust and truth go hand-in-hand in any relationship, open communication with children is vital.Lying almost always has an emotional component to it.  A child who knows they can speak with their parents about anything, and find a solution together, will have little reason to lie at all.

Have you caught your child telling a lie?  How did you discuss it with them?  Leave us your thoughts in the comments section.