WHEN CHILDREN LIE TO YOU
By Dr. Bruce Narramore, Ph.D.
When children lie to you, the starting place for dealing with this dishonesty is recognizing the reason your child is lying. A four-year-old who claims, “Daddy, I outran every child in school today,” a six-year-old who claims he didn’t break his mother’s most precious vase, and a teenager who misses curfew and says his car ran out of gas, are probably distorting the truth for different reasons.
Young children have a natural tendency to exaggerate. They enjoy fairy tales and sometimes construct their own. A little of this shouldn’t alarm you. Other children embellish their achievements and stretch reality to gain attention or compensate for feeling inadequate. These children are telling us, “I don’t like myself the way I am so I have to make you think I’m different.”
Other children lie to avoid being punished. Like the six-year-old who broke his mother’s vase, children lie so they won’t be caught. When my own children were young and I asked them, “Why do children lie?” they immediately answered, “To get out of trouble!”
“When my own children were
young and I asked them,
‘Why do children lie?’
they immediately answered,
‘To get out of trouble.’”
Just as some children lie to get out of trouble, others lie to get their brothers or sisters in trouble. Younger children are masters at stirring up conflict with older brothers or sisters, taking the “innocent” role, and getting their older siblings in trouble.
So be careful. Sometimes “innocent” children enhance the truth to get their more blatantly disobedient siblings into trouble.
For lies of exaggeration, don’t challenge your children until you have more information. If your five-year-old runs into the house and proudly announces, “I outran ever child in school today!” You might say “Really! Tell me about it.” If you still have doubts after he repeats his story, you might say, “Every child in school?” At this point most children will acknowledge it’s really just the children in their class or the children they raced that day. But if he persists undaunted, you might reply, “You sure are a good runner and it would be great to outrun all the kids at school. But I’m not sure you can really outrun all the sixth-graders, too. They are pretty fast, you know!” This way you avoid labeling your child a liar and protect his self-esteem, while still letting him know you want the truth.
For deceitful (instead of exaggerating) lies, bring the problem directly to your child’s attention rather than trying to trap him further. For example, already knowing who the guilty party is, instead of saying “Joey, do you know what happened to the money on the table?” it is much better to simply say, “Joey, I saw the money in your room.” Statements like this, offered in a factual rather than an accusatory manner, give children the opportunity to tell the truth, even if it is belated.
Once you have calmly brought the problem to your child’s attention, without condemning or pressuring, let him know you are concerned and would like to know what happened. If you let your children know you aren’t going to lose your temper or punish them in anger, most children will open up. You might say something like this: “Son, I realize we all have a tendency to hide the truth, but in the end, it works out better not to lie. If you are afraid I will be angry with you or punish you in anger, I want you to know I won’t. I may need to discipline you to help you do better next time, but I will not be angry at you for telling me the truth. It’s very important for us to be honest with each other.”
“When children feel secure in
our love and know that we are
gracious and forgiving, they
find it a lot easier to tell the truth.”
Once he tells the truth, let him know you understand why he was afraid to be honest with you. This opens pathways of communication and makes honesty easier in the future. If you think he needs more discipline than he can receive from your talk, set a meaningful consequence that will remind him to think twice the next time.
Probably the most confusing lies are the repeated, gross untruths given out by pathological liars. Fortunately this is rare, but a few children seem to have lost sight of either the realities of the world or their own moral sensibilities. Even when caught in blatant distortions, they refuse to admit their dishonesty. These children are likely to get involved in delinquent acts. Since pathological lying can reflect a severe mental or emotional problem, they are in need of professional help.
Children need to know why honesty is so important. If we aren’t honest, people can’t trust us. They also need to know that while we may need to discipline them, we are also gracious and forgiving. When children feel secure in our love and know that we will be gracious and forgiving, they find it much easier to tell the truth.