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Mommy the invisible fairy drew all over my cupboards! Here’s looking at why kids lie and what you can do to help prevent and solve the problem.

It’s normal for kids to make up stories and tell tall tales. This is because they enjoy hearing and making things up for fun. While young children may blur the distinction between reality and fantasy, an older child or adolescent may tell a lie to be self-serving, for example, to avoid doing something or deny responsibility for their actions. So what’s a parent to do? Your job is to understand the flavour of the lie and sell your child on the benefits of telling the truth. Knowing that the truth is important to you will make being honest more important to your child.

Understanding why kids lie?
Many children may lie because they are bored or do not feel that they are receiving adequate attention. Therefore, a child who has gained attention from telling elaborate stories and untruths may continue to do so to maintain parental or social interest. Often, their storytelling can reveal hidden fears. For example, “Mommy, there’s a monster in my room! Come save me!” may be your child’s way of telling you he’s afraid of the dark.

However, aside from the creative aspect of dishonesty, the major reason children lie is to escape punishment. Children are primarily motivated by the principles of either pleasure or pain and while they may gravitate towards that which is enjoyable, it is just as natural for them to avoid that which is not. For this reason it is worth analysing the form of discipline that you enforce on your children and consider just how severe it is. Chances are the harsher you are parenting, the more motivated your children will be to avoid you when they do wrong.

According to the book: ‘Discipline without shouting or spanking’ (2002), here’s how you can prevent and try to solve the problem of lying by modifying your parenting skills when faced with common scenarios as depicted in the examples below:

Preventing the Problem

  • Reinforce telling the truth – Offer praise when you know you’re hearing the truth, whether it’s about something bad that happened or something good. This helps kids begin to understand the difference between what’s true and what’s not.
  • Tell the truth – When your child asks for a cookie right before dinner, you might be tempted to say, “We don’t have any cookies,” instead of telling him the truth, which is, “I don’t want you to eat a cookie before dinner.” By lying to him, you’re telling him that it’s okay to lie when he wants to get out of something unpleasant. He knows where the cookies are, so don’t pretend he doesn’t. Say, “I know you want a cookie now, but when you’ve eaten your dinner, you can pick one out yourself.”
  • Learn the flavours of lying – Lying comes in a variety of flavours. Plain old vanilla is the one we all know so well: Lying to stay out of trouble. “I didn’t take the last cookie” is a good example. A more pungent flavour is lying to get out of doing something you don’t want to do. For example, your child might say, ‘Sure, Mommy, I brushed my teeth,” when he hasn’t. And then there’s the ever popular, extra-smooth lying that gets whipped up when children try to impress others with comments like, “I have 3 horses that I get to ride every day. So there!”
  • Be empathetic – Understand the flavour of lying your child is using and respond accordingly. For example, when your child tells you that he didn’t mark his bedroom wall with crayons even though you know he did, tell him, “I understand that you don’t want to be punished, but I’m more disappointed that you chose to lie rather than tell the truth. You can always tell me the truth so that we can fix the problem together.” Your child will feel more comfortable facing the music and telling the truth when he knows you’ll be sensitive to his feelings.
  • Look for honesty – Look for people and events that demonstrate honesty and truth. Point these out to your child to reinforce the message that being honest is important.

Solving the Problem – What to do:

  • Show how lying hurts – When your child is caught in a lie, explain to him how it hurts him as well as you. “I’m sorry you chose not to tell the truth. It makes me feel sad that I can’t trust what you say. Let’s work on telling the truth so I can believe what you tell me is true.”
  • Explain the difference between lying and telling the truth – Young kids don’t always know that what they’re saying is a lie because it might seem like the truth to them. Help your child understand the difference between reality and fantasy by saying, “I know you want your friend to like you, but telling him that you have 101 Dalmatians living at your house isn’t truthful. The truth is that you’d like to have all those dogs, but you only have one dog named Molly. She’s a really nice dog, and you love her a lot.”
  • Help your child accept responsibility – When you send your son to do a chore such as putting toys away in his room, he might lie to get out of doing the job by telling you that he already did it. Say, “I’m so glad you did what I asked. I’ll go see what a great job you did.” If your child says, “Oh no, Mommy, not yet,” you can be reasonably sure he’s avoided his responsibility. Check it out! If you discover he lied, say, “I’m sorry you chose to lie about doing what I asked. I know you didn’t want to put all those toys away and didn’t want me to be disappointed, but doing what I asked and telling the truth are important. Now let’s go get the job done. I’ll watch while you pick up.”
  • Play make believe with you child – To help your child understand the difference between truth and fiction, set aside time for him to make up stories. Then contrast this make-believe time with truth time in when he’s asked to tell the truth about what happened. When your child tells you something you know isn’t true, say, “That’s an interesting make-believe story you just told me. Now tell me a true story about what really happened.”

What not to do:

  1. Don’t test your child’s honesty – If you know your child has done something wrong, asking him a question to which you already know the answer forces him into a dilemma: tell the truth and get punished, or lie and maybe get away with it. Don’t make him choose.
  2. Don’t punish – When you catch your child telling a lie in order to stay out of trouble, don’t punish him for doing so. Instead, teach him how to accept responsibility for making a mistake and fix the problem it caused. For example, say, “I’m sorry the wall has marks on it, now we’re going to have to learn about taking care of walls. Let’s get the cleaning stuff and start cleaning. I’ll get the cleaner while you get the paper towels. See? Telling me the truth lets us fix the problem.”
  3. Don’t lie – Avoid exaggerating or making up stories to impress people, avoid consequences, or get out of doing what you don’t want to do.
  4. Don’t overreact – Even if you’ve said it a hundred times that you can’t stand a liar, going ballistic when your child lies only forces him to avoid telling the truth in order to keep you from being mad.
  5. Don’t label your child a “liar” – Don’t make lying a self-fulfilling prophecy. A child who’s called a “liar” will believe that what he does is what he is. Your child isn’t what he does. You might not love his behaviour, but you’ll always love him unconditionally.

The truth about lying
Although we think of truthfulness as a young child’s paramount virtue, lying is actually an advanced skill and developmental milestone. A child who is going to lie must recognise the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Of course, this is not to say that you should encourage lying at all, however, before you get into hysterics about your child’s dishonesty, realise that it is a normal part of development. By employing the right parenting skills, you can help your child to learn the difference between fantasy and reality and teach him to appreciate the good that comes from telling the truth.

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