Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

By Sharon Knapp Lamberth

Children lie. Some lie occasionally, some more than occasionally, but all children lie. As a young mother I thought and probably said that my children would never lie, even though I knew that telling fibs was/is a normal part of child development. Needless to say, I ate those words! The frequency of dishonesty may increase as cognitive skills develop, so lying should not be ignored.

The reasons children lie change with age. Toddlers and preschool age children do not intentionally lie because they are too young to understand exactly what a lie is. Young children love to make up tall tales that are expressions of their imagination – not lies. Additionally, young children have a difficult time distinguishing between reality and their own wishful thinking. They may want something to be true but developmentally they are not mature enough to realize that wanting something to be true is different from it actually being true. If a child drops a plate, spilling food all over the floor, he may tell you that an imaginary friend dropped the plate. Even though the child knows that he dropped the plate, he does not want it to be true. It is less upsetting to exercise ‘wishful thinking’ and claim someone else was at fault.

In cases of young children lying, it is important to not overreact or call the child a liar (Remember, the child does not fully understand what lying is). When parents react with anger, it can put children on the defensive making it more likely that they will continue to lie. In the example above, a good approach would be to simply acknowledge the incident (“Oops, it looks like we have some cleaning up to do.”) and clean it up together.

If a preschooler shares an outlandish tale, it’s ok to playfully ask if the story is real or pretend. When feeling unthreatened children are more likely to admit the truth. Mutually acknowledging a made-up tale, even sharing a laugh about it, sends the message that it is ok to own up to a fabrication.

During the early elementary school years, children most often lie to escape responsibility or punishment. At times they may lie to get their way or because they are afraid of letting their parents down. If a child thinks his parents will be upset that he did poorly on a test, he may lie and say that he did well even when he knows that the test will be sent home, and his parents will likely see his performance. Children will also lie to friends to avoid feeling left out or to raise their status among peers. Regardless of the reason for their lies, it is helpful to let children know that everyone makes mistakes, even adults.

In order to determine the motivation for a child to lie, parents must also reflect on their own behavior (take out the mirror!). When parents make up excuses as to why their child is late for school, claim that their child was sick when they weren’t, falsely deny seeing a notice or report card…they are lying. The message to their child becomes ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’

Failing to nip lying in the bud early can lead to increasing challenges during the teen years. When parents know their teen is lying, engaging in back-and-forth bantering in hopes of securing a confession is counterproductive. The less said the better. If you know your teen has lied, clearly identify the lie. If your teen blurts out “No, I didn’t” simply respond with “Yes you did” and walk off, letting him stew in his own juices! Your child knows he lied and now knows that you know. Accountability is essential! Make sure the consequence for the teen’s misbehavior is one that is highly meaningful to the teen.

No one likes a liar. Modeling the type of behavior that you want to see in your children is the most powerful deterrent to unacceptable behavior. As the saying goes, “Children may not listen to everything we (adults) say but they are watching everything we do.”

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