When Kids Lie

This morning, a friend of mine asked Facebook what to do, as she’d just caught her daughter (about 4-5 years old) lying to her for the first time. One of the responses was a suggestion to get the Berenstain Bears book on lying. I have an intense dislike for that book, because it is what taught my literal, concrete 4-year-old how to lie in the first place. He understood what they did, but he did not understand that it was wrong, or why it is wrong. This made the process of dealing with lying even more difficult.

My approach had to be multifaceted, and went like this: If I caught him lying, I took away privileges. This had to happen multiple times. If this is our ONLY approach, however, it just makes kids better liars, so more is required.

We talked about how lying ruins relationships. I asked him questions to help him understand how he would feel if I lied to him. I think my example was promising to take him somewhere he liked, and then saying we weren’t going there because I was only lying. You have to be careful with what you pick, because if it’s something that can happen on accident, you’re almost guaranteed to have it happen and be left with a kid crying “you lied to me!!”

I also watched very carefully to learn his “tells.” His tell was that he stared at me *very* intently, unblinking, when lying.

I also learned that lying was habitual — it quickly became his default response to any question, even if it wasn’t an “incriminating” question. I realized I had to break that cycle. I did this by 1) pointing out a lie when I saw it and/or asking him to rethink his answer, and 2) prefacing a question with “I’m going to ask you a question; please think about the answer before you say it.” But the most important aspect of this is to remove the opportunity to lie whenever possible. Instead of “Who made this mess?” you say “There’s a mess here; please clean it up.” They’ll say “But I didn’t do it!” which is when you say “That’s fine; please clean it up.” That usually worked for us, but if they persist, you say “I clean up messes all the time that I did not make; you can too.” In this case, you’re using children’s heightened sense of fairness to your advantage. By saying, “That’s fine,” or something like it, you’re not condoning lying — you’re taking away some of its emotional power over you, the parent.

Phrasing things this way reduces the practice of lying, and also lets them know that things will get done either way, which makes lying pointless. Your goal is to take the power of out lying. As people with little power over their lives, children need choices, but lying must become an unattractive option for getting those choices. Using the mess example I gave above, you could say, “Would you like to clean this mess up before lunch, or after lunch?” You’re circumventing the thought processes that lead to lying, and, you are replacing it with a healthy form of power.

Essentially, as a parent, you have to work the problem from multiple angles, and you have to give them internal ownership of the problem. Your role as a policeman (external ownership) has to be temporary. You have to acknowledge what they already know, which is that sometimes, they will get away with lying. Some Christian parents will say “God doesn’t want us to lie,” but that’s not any more effective than telling them not to lie to you. So you have to break it down — why doesn’t He want us to lie? Because it ruins relationships, and relationships are very important to children. Right now, lying is not at all connected to your child’s relationship with you. If you can talk about it in a way that helps him or her empathize with your hurt and disappointment, s/he can begin to internalize it and own it.