When Children Lie

Hi Janet, how would you handle situations when a 6-year-old lies? What consequences would you implement?

Honestly, if my 6-year-old out-and-out lied to me, I would wonder what I had done to cause that. As the leader in our parent-child relationship, I would take it upon myself to discern how I had made the truth feel unsafe or uncomfortable for my child. Then I would do all in my power to repair this rift between us. I might say something like, “It seems that you don’t feel comfortable telling me the truth. I’m so sorry. I want you to know that you can always tell me anything and I will listen and help if I can, but not judge.”

(I sense the punitive parenting proponents sharpening their knives… Take a breath. Hear me out.)

Emotional intimacy with our children is a fragile gift that can easily break when we erode trust through punishments, shame, blame, scolding, or manipulation. When our children’s behavior is off-track, they need us to calmly stop them, help them, and guide them. They need to know we’re always in their corner (rather than sending them off to one), and that we will create safety – not only physical safety, but also safety in our regard for them –safety in our love and our “like,” a 100% safe relationship.

Alternatively, shaming or punishing children for lying creates distance and mistrust, which only encourage kids to lie better.

As for consequences, with the respectful parenting approach, consequences aren’t tactics to be “implemented” like just another form of punishment. If there are consequences, they are honest sharing of our own truths as parents. So, if there was a consequence in the case of a 6-year-old lying, it might look something like this (shared calmly and nonjudgmentally): “I am not going to be able to let you go to Juliet’s house again if you can’t tell me the truth about what you two did. I’m just not comfortable.”

There are a variety of reasons a child might lie in the early years (most of them so perfectly harmless that describing them as “lies” seems too strong a word). They are all motivated by the same thing: lying feels preferable to that child. In that particular moment, they may be experiencing:

Fear – the unfortunate result of our past anger and other emotional responses or punishments when our children have erred. It seems better to them to not admit they did it.

Remedy: Respectful, empathic guidance which I describe in my many discipline posts, podcasts, and book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

Shame, blame, embarrassment – because our focus has been “teaching our kids a lesson” rather than understanding the behavior. The real lesson has been our lack of empathy for their immature stage of development.

Remedy: Create safety with nonjudgmental responses like, “I hear you saying you didn’t hit your brother. It seems that he was hit. Please let me know whenever you feel like hitting, so I can be there to keep you safe.”

A need to test our leadership – children might “try out” mistruths to see if they have the power to ruffle their leaders’ feathers. If we fail this test, they might need to try it out again. And again.

Remedy: Disempower these tests by taking them in stride and connecting lightly and knowingly. “Hmm… you didn’t let the dog out, and yet out he is… Verrrry mysterious.”

Enjoyment of imagination and fantasy – children can become absorbed in their fantasies, even to the extent that it can be difficult for them to separate fantasy from reality. This a healthy stage of development children pass through, and they certainly don’t need us to jar them out of it.

Remedy: None. No need to worry, just enjoy with them. “You’re a purple dragon? Ah, yes, I can totally see that now.”

Wishful thinking, projecting, and visualizing success – children might imagine themselves succeeding at a task that, in reality, they didn’t even attempt.  These projections can help them shore up the courage to do it the next time.

Remedy: Again, visualization is positive and healthy, so I would connect rather than correct. “You felt yourself going down the highest slide today. How did that feel?”

In all cases, our openness, curiosity and unruffled, unthreatened, patient responses are the best way to diffuse the need to fabricate. And they also go a long way in forging a relationship that forever eliminates the need for avoidance of the truth.

No lie.

 

For more, I recommend the terrific advice in When Young Children Tell Lies by Rebecca Eanes (author of The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting).

 

(Photo by Kevin Shorter on Flickr)

16 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. i’ve noticed my 4yo experimenting with untruths lately. she’s really discovering the power of her own words as she narrates her makebelieve stories, and now i’m seeing her try out little fibs here and there. i’ve been wondering how to calmly and respectfully address this. your article is perfectly timed! thank you!

  2. This post reminded me of a story I told on my blog ages ago,about a little girl I was caring for who was then just five years old. (She just turned ten years old, and for the record, is as honest as the day is long.)

    Here’s the story: We were all at the dinner table the other night when the conversation turned to the subject of “truth telling”. S, who is now 5 years old, has been known to experiment with stretching the truth a bit at times in recent months, which prompted her Dad to tell her the story of The Little Shepherd Girl Who Cried Wolf. Her Dad asked her if she remembered the story,and if she could tell us what happened. S said,“Well, the little shepherd girl kept calling wolf when there wasn’t really a wolf, and then when there really was a wolf and she called for help, no one believed her, and no one came to help, and that was big trouble for the sheep.” S was quiet for a moment, and her Dad asked what she thought the story meant. Without missing a beat S replied,“Well, I think maybe the shepherd girl was just practicing.”

    Po Bronson, in his book NurtureShock, has a very interesting chapter on lying. Research shows that all children experiment with lying starting at about age four. It’s a developmental milestone of sorts. As you note Janet, it is something that has to be addressed, but not through shame and punishment or consequences: “Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age — learning to get caught less often.” The entire chapter can be read here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112292248

  3. I love that story! Lisa, I wish I’d had you write this post with me. Your additions are perfect. Thanks for sharing!

  4. avatar Ruth Mason says:

    Great post, Janet! Again, I wish I’d had you around when my kids were little – and lying! This all sounds so reasonable, I wonder: Why didn’t I think of it? I just read it out loud to my husband who said, It would be very hard for parents to do this. Which echoed a RIE mom’s statement on the phone to me yesterday. She’s having a lot of trouble with her toddler after the birth or her second child. She reads your posts and knows RIE principles but she has a hard time implementing them, especially when she is exhausted and reactive. What I just said to my husband: “Yeah, parents who want to implement these ideas really have to work on themselves.” Which leads me to wonder if a column on just how do work on ourselves would be helpful…

    1. So true and a brilliant idea, Ruth! The RIE approach is all about the way we see — how we see our children and our role as parents — so my work with parents is mostly about helping them to alter their perspectives. Some parents will need outside therapy as well to help with triggers and misperceptions.

      1. I think a great book that helps you work on yourself as a parent is “Parenting From the Inside Out”. I think it works well with that RIE approach and helps me understand why I respond the way that I do to my son’s actions. The book encourages you to be gentle with yourself so that you don’t pass on the same emotional issues you experienced as a child on to your own child.

        1. Yes, I love that book! Thanks for mentioning it, Joanne

  5. Hi! I recently explored this topic of the ‘work we can do on ourselves’ in my Master’s thesis. It’s about exploring ‘what it looks like to acknowledge another person as whole, legitimate and intrinsically worthy,’ which I think is really at the heart of RIE. Maybe followers of your blog would enjoy reading some of the short essays here! I’ve been meaning to add to the blog, specifically wanting to write a piece about RIE and how it relates to the ‘topic’ (the never feels like the right word) of ‘seeing’ others. http://www.toseeandbeseen.com/

  6. Great article (as usual) and advice!! My struggle is mostly that my son (3.5 years old) sneaks food and then lies about that, or tells lies in order to get food (like “no, I didn’t brush my teeth yet” when he has because he knows he has a better chance of his dad giving him snack permission in that instance). We’ve tried not to use food as a reward or withhold as a punishment. The behavior is exactly something I used to do at his age, but that’s not helpful for me because I never really understood my own reasons for wanting to sneak food. Thoughts on how best to handle the sneaking and the lying in this situation? I feel like the lie is more a way to get what he wants rather than something fanciful or limit pushing but I could be wrong.

  7. How would you respond to untruths about being sick? I have 3 year old twins and when one gets sick and doesn’t go to school the other one starts saying she’s sick too, or when one says her stomach hurts, the other one says her stomach hurts too. I don’t want to place doubt on what they’re feeling in their body, but I also need to be able to know when they’re actually hurting so that I can help them feel better, and not give them medicine or keep them home from school when they’re not actually sick

  8. My 4.5 year old definitely lies for the wishful thinking/visualizing success. Example: he’s not a big fan of veggies, which we don’t push, we just make available and he chooses whether or not to eat them. We do, however, talk about food in the context of how it can help your body, and last week he started telling tall tales about eating broccoli at snack time (I can see on daycare board what snacks they were offered, so I know this is untrue). This week, he tried a piece at supper.

    Anyway, I’ve been a longtime podcast listener, so I did a search of “lying” and low and behold, you confirmed my intuition on why he was lying. 🙂

  9. My almost 4 year old daughter told a lie about pooping in her diaper. I asked if she was pooping and she just said no.
    And I did everything wrong (I became angry and really sad). No I feel I failed, because she lies to me. It makes me very sad

  10. avatar Lacey Scott says:

    One reason for lying you didn’t mention in your article was kids that lie to manipulate the situation. I’m wondering how you would deal with that. I see a couple comments above asking the same question (Karyn regarding food and Liana regarding faking illness to get out of school).

    I have 3.5 year old twins that will lie after stealing a toy from the other or will lie saying their sibling stole a toy from them just to try to get me to take the toy away from the other. My answer is to take the toy away from both of them and put it up since it’s causing issues between the two of them. Although I’m questioning if this is the correct action to take since one of the kids gets punished unjustly. I can’t always be there to see who’s lying and of course if I know who’s lying I always address that. But most of the time I don’t have a clue who’s doing the lying.

    Please address this situation…

  11. What about when you catch your child lying to someone else like your partner, their teacher or sibling? How do they learn it is their responsibility to be honest even when it is difficult and does not feel easy or comfortable? We can’t blame the person on the receiving end of a lie for not being understanding or open enough to the liar, right? Do some people deserve to be lied to?

  12. I am having a very serious problem with my 4 years old girl lies because they are very dangerous and we are scared they will land us in a legal problem. She understands the difference between truths and lies, yet she keep saying it and doesn’t say why. She has said the teacher screamed at her and sided to another girl who pulled her hair, so we went to school to complaint but checking the school CCTV it was proved nothing was true. She has an strong irritation on her private parts, she said her Dad molested her, then she said it wasn’t him, it was another girl in school, at the end she said it didn’t happen, it was the toilet paper in school that is too hard. Now she made the school nurse called me for an stomachache. I took her to the doctor, she was prescribe something for the pain, I paid a very expensive consultation and OTC prescription. 2 days later she told me I don’t have anything, I just didn’t want to eat. I have her now sit on a chair grounded (no toys, no TV), but as much as I asked her what is the truth and why is she lying, she is just crying or going back and forward in the stories. I am on the edge with this as I have badly screamed at her because this is completely scary and worrisome, last night I was crying and not able to sleep thinking she might have cancer as this “ouchy in the tummy” has been for months, but when this morning she said “it’s not true, I have nothing, just didn’t want to eat”, that blow my mind and any self-control possible…

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