I bought 4 little wooden ducks from a craft market many years ago, before I had kids. They are tiny but precious to me. My older son loves these ducks but I don’t let him play with them because they are so ‘valuable’.
But one day, there it was ─ a headless duck with a very guilty-looking 3-year-old sitting right next to it. I asked him, “What happened?” and he pointed at his little brother, who was only a few months old then, and said, “He did it!” Obviously, he was lying.
I’m sure I’m not the only mum who’s experienced this. All kids lie occasionally and, usually, it shouldn’t be cause for alarm. But when kids find that lying helps them stay out of trouble, it can become a lasting habit.
So how do we parents address lying in a manner that will promote honesty in our kids? Here is an age-by-age guide that may be useful.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers
Experts say toddlers don’t really understand the difference between a lie and the truth. But a pre-schooler’s imagination develops rapidly and he may start to mix up make-believe and reality. For example, a child may combine something he saw on TV with something that really happened. I only have to think of my 4-year-old telling me with utter conviction that hippos transport people (he saw this on TV!) to know this is true. Older pre-schoolers may also lie to protect themselves against the unwanted consequences of doing something wrong.
What you could do
- If your child is telling you something make-believe that doesn’t involve her being dishonest (e.g. she tells you she is a superhero), simply go along with it, as imaginary playing is important to your child’s development.
- If it’s an actual lie, approach the situation as a teaching opportunity. You could say, “I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened – do you think it happened that way?”
- If the lie puts your child at risk (e.g. your child has plugged in your hair-dryer, but denies doing it), explain why telling the truth is important to keep her safe.
- Understand what caused the behaviour behind the lie. E.g. if your child lied to get something he wanted, consider a rewards system that lets him earn special treats.
- Fix the problem together. If your little girl has scribbled on the wall, tell her gently that “we only draw on paper”, and ask her to help you clean up the mess.
School-age kids know the difference between the truth and a lie and know that there will be consequences for lying. They know that if they break your favourite mug, you might be upset.
Experts say that once children are 6 years old, their level of brain development allows them to understand more about consequences. By 8, they understand cause and effect. So a lot of lying during these ages is to avoid getting into trouble.
What you could do
- Lead by example. Don’t lie about your child’s age to get cheaper tickets to a show. If your child knows you lie to get things done, she will see no harm in lying either.
- Avoid getting your kid into situations where he feels he needs to lie. If you see he has spilled some milk, don’t ask him if he spilled it, as this is putting him in a situation where he may feel he has to say “no” to avoid getting into trouble. Instead, say, “Look, there’s been an accident with the milk. Let’s clean it up together.”
- Try not to punish. Kids who fear punishment for telling an untruth may start to purposely keep you out of the loop. This could hinder communication between you and your child.
- Exaggerated stories that involve bragging can be a child’s way of getting admiration or respect from others. If this is happening often, think about ways of boosting your child’s self-esteem through encouragement or praise when appropriate.
- When your child is truthful, let him know you are happy he was honest. This way, your child knows that you won’t get upset if he owns up to something.
- Teach your child the repercussions of repeated lies by telling him the story of “Peter and the Wolf”. Explain to them that if they lie about things all the time, even when they tell the truth, no one will believe them.
Pre-teens and teens
Social life is important to many pre-teens and teenagers, and many of the lies they tell involve this. Experts says pre-teens and teens often start having lives independent of their parents, and while lying isn’t always devious, it gives them ‘permission’ to do certain things for the first time in their lives.
What you could do
- Try to avoid telling your child that he is a ‘liar’. This may affect his self-esteem, or lead to even more lying.
- Always tell your child you know when he is not telling the truth and how much you appreciate honesty. But do try to avoid asking him all the time if he is telling the truth.
- Remember that lying (at times) is your child’s misguided attempt at autonomy. Try saying something like, “It’s fine if you go to your friend’s house after school. Just leave me a message.” According to experts, this is a very positive message that says you respect your child’s growing independence, but are still concerned about his safety.
- Stay involved in your child’s life and encourage her to talk to you about any problems she might have. If your kids are comfortable enough to talk to you about anything, the need to lie is automatically erased.
There may be instances where children lie to keep a secret or to protect someone. For example, a child who has been abused by an adult will often lie to protect that adult. Often the child fears that she will be punished if she tells. If you suspect your child is lying about a serious matter, assure her that she will be safe if she tells the truth and do your best to convince her that you can make things better.