Dr. Dave and Erin,
Our seven year old daughter has been lying a bit lately. One night her toothbrush lay on the sink with toothpaste still on it; clearly she had not brushed her teeth. We asked her if she had brushed them and she said “Yes! I did!”
It’s become a bad pattern of her making a poor choice… and then completely denying it. Although we’ve had some good conversations about the importance of making mistakes, that we love her no matter what, that it’s so important she own up to those mistakes and take responsibility for them, big or small…. it’s not getting through.
Of course, we can’t help but foresee her as a teenager, and the last thing we want is to have her hiding things from us, especially the mistakes and the challenges (because there will be many!). The stakes are fairly low now, but they will get higher quickly.
How can we press the re-set button?
This is a great question. Many parents don’t know what to do when your child lies. The first thing to do is to avoid panic. Kids lie. Heck, we all lie sometimes! Kids lie for the same reasons that we do: to avoid punishment, to please others, because it is more convenient than telling the truth, and to exaggerate their accomplishments. It is certainly easier to say “Yes, I made my bed!” then to trundle upstairs to wrestle with the blankets. Lying is one tool that kids experiment with as they problem solve ways to deal with a challenge or conflict.
That’s not to say that we should condone dishonesty, but it is important to keep your child’s lying in perspective.
Little children often “lie” in imaginative and fanciful ways. You might overhear your five year old recount an incredible tale of facing down a bear on the family hike. If the audience is appreciative, that will only fuel her story. Don’t confuse deliberate lying with creative storytelling. This is a normal part of development, especially for children under five. Simply let your child know that you are aware of the truth. “Facing down a bear would have been really something wouldn’t it? Now tell your cousin what really happened on our hike.”
Your response to intentional, deceptive lying depends upon your child’s age. Kids need to know that you will check and that lying ultimately won’t work. Getting angry at your child for lying generally doesn’t work except to make your child more fearful. Saying angrily “Are you lying to me? I didn’t raise a liar!!” does little to dissuade them from using the “lying to avoid punishment” strategy in the future. Try to stay calm and positive.
It can be surprising to parents when “rule followers” lie. A child with a perfectionist streak might lie to maintain her identity as the “good kid.” We need to make sure these kids know that they don’t have to be perfect and that mistakes are okay as long we are honest about them. Don’t be worried if these conversations don’t seem to be sinking in right away, you are planting the important seeds of life long lessons.
Setting a foundation for honesty and integrity
It sounds like you are committed to teaching your daughter the importance of honesty and responsibility. She is lucky to have a set of parents with great values and a commitment to fostering them in her! You are already doing tons of things right:
- Don’t panic and stay positive. Don’t worry about whether your child is turning into a “liar,” these sorts of labels rarely fit. Take it one incident at a time.
- Emphasize the importance of honesty in your family outside of precipitating incidents. Talk about honesty and trust when you and your child are calm and the situation isn’t loaded.
- Read stories that emphasize and reward honesty.
- Remind your child that you love them regardless of whether they make mistakes.
- Recognize when your child is being honest. “I am so proud of you that you told me the truth even though it was hard. It showed a lot of courage.”
What to do when your child lies
- Don’t set your child up or “catch them” in a lie. For example, if you know your child didn’t take out the garbage, don’t “test” them by asking if they did so. Instead be direct and keep it short. Say, “I see that you didn’t take out the garbage like I asked you to. Please go take it out.”
- Be empathetic but firm. If your child delivers a short lie of convenience (But I didn’t take that toy!) don’t respond with a disproportionate consequence or a long lecture. Be clear, concise, and direct. “I can see that you have the toy and that you really want it – but it isn’t ours! Please put the toy back.”
- Avoid a power struggle. Going back and forth tends to escalate conflict. If you child responds, “I did do it!” resist the urge to say “No, you didn’t!” over and over again even though it is exasperating to hear your child lie. Try calmly saying “I am not going to argue with you. If you choose to not take out the garbage, you are choosing to add another chore to your list.”
- Don’t take it personally. This is an opportunity to teach your kids more effective problem solving skills.
- Choose a clear consequence that sends a message but isn’t punitive. Solution oriented and logical consequences are most effective. For example, “Your teacher told us that you didn’t hand your homework in all week even though you told us that you completed it. Telling the truth means we are all on the same page. Let’s start by you showing us your homework every night before bed so we can trust you again.”
- Give your child opportunities to tell the truth. “That doesn’t sound like you are telling the truth. Let’s take a little break. I will be in the kitchen when you are ready to tell me what really happened.”
- Pay attention to patterns and motivations. Be sure your child knows that you care about WHY they are lying. In the above example it might be that homework has become very difficult and therefore overwhelming. “Sometimes people lie if they feel overwhelmed or worried about something. How is your homework going? Do you need help completing it?” Kids might lie for attention, to boost their sense of confidence, to protect others, or to avoid punishment. These are all important things to talk about with your kids. Ongoing communication does not excuse lying behavior. It helps address the motivations for lies, making them less likely in the future.
Telling the truth, even when it is hard, is an important lesson for kids. That doesn’t mean that it is an easy lesson to teach them! Sounds like you are doing a fantastic job. Best of luck and please post other tips, suggestions, or follow-up questions.