Children want more than anything to be loved and accepted by their parents and caregivers. When children realize they have done something wrong, they may instinctively try to re-frame the situation in a positive way; sometimes, that involves bending the truth or outright lying.
Has your child ever insisted it was the dog that left the light on? Or that she did clean her room but the wind must have made it all messy again? From the most innocent to serious lies, it is possible to teach children the value of honesty without relying on punishments, bribes or rewards.
An effective way to deal with lies is to remember the TRUTH:
T is for traps: If you know your child is telling a lie, don’t trap your child into more lies.
For example, if you know the chocolate smudge on your child’s cheek is from a treat taken without permission, avoid asking: “did you take a piece of chocolate without asking?” Instead try using words that invite a conversation: “I notice you have a chocolate smudge on your face. Do you remember what our deal is about taking chocolates from the pantry?”
Another example: Let’s say you know your child hasn’t put away his laundry. Instead of asking “did you remember to put away your clothes?” try “I noticed your laundry is still waiting in the basket, do you have a plan for when you will be putting those clothes away?”
In both examples, the aim is to empower your child to be honest and problem solve.
R is for respect: Lies can bring up feelings of fear, anger, hurt or shame. Trying to respect whatever feelings are coming to the surface from both parents and children is important. Our job as parents can be to model respectful communication. So acknowledge your own feelings around the lie and then aim to talk about it respectfully. Try as best as you can to avoid yelling or nagging. Tthat might sound like “will you tell me already?” “Let’s hear the truth now right now!” Instead, offer your child some time and patience for reflection.
Positive, respectful, encouraging relationships are the most important part of creating an environment in which kids feel safe to learn and make mistakes. – Kimberly Gonsalves, CPDT, CPCC
U is for understanding: Look beyond the lie and seek to understand your child’s motivations. In helping a family recently where lying had come to be a challenge, it became clear that Spencer*, a six year old boy, had been telling lies and then more lies about doing chores and reading. His parents’ “go to” consequence for any missed chores or lying was taking away video game privileges. Spencer, afraid of not being able to play video games because of undone chores, started to lie. A bad cycle of lies and punishment evolved. Creating a routine chart which included Spencer’s chores and time specifically for video game playing, helped stop the lying and punishment cycle. Without trying to understand the cycle of lies and punishments, the lies would have most likely continued.
Excessive lying can also be a sign your child needs help coping with something that has changed at school or home. Taking the time to understand the motivation or reasons behind a lie can be key to helping the lies stop.
T is for time to cool off: If you “catch” your child in a lie, you may feel your buttons getting pushed. The best action here, especially if emotions are running high is to take some time to cool down. Children learn best when they feel safe and the lesson on honesty will not be lost if you wait a while to address it. In fact, modeling how to calm down is a valuable lesson as well.
H is for honoring honesty: Create a home environment where telling the truth is always honored. Avoid punishments and imposed consequences for lies. Focus instead on open dialogue and inviting your child to find solutions. As parents, modeling honesty even if it creates potentially challenging situations is important too. When I broke my son’s favorite mug I made sure to tell him I broke it right away. He was very upset about it, and I stayed with him, offering him an apology and empathy. Another time when he broke something, he let me know right away as well.
Lying should not be overlooked and dismissed, but it also does not need to be harshly punished. Fear of punishment (time out, spanking, losing privileges) and shame are the most common reasons children turn to lies. Research has shown that children that are punished for lying are more likely to lie again in the future. Children that are given an opportunity to make amends and tell the truth without fear are more likely to learn problem solving.
If your child has been lying a lot, it may be worthwhile to reflect on how to start welcoming honesty and problem solving instead. Other positive parenting tools that are helpful are setting limits that are kind and clear, keeping an open dialogue with your child, implementing special time and having weekly family meetings. Most of all, remember to focus on communicating with love, connection and trust.
Has your child lied to you recently? What was it about and how did you handle it?
Peace & be well,
*Spencer's name has been changed.