Parenting And Lying

How to encourage truth-telling among children

From seemingly innocent white lies to fibs embellished with wild abandon, both kids and adults alike tell lies. For our children, lying is a natural part of development. Here, discover how to look beyond the lie and encourage truth-telling.

As parents, we have all heard our kids tell some big old whoppers from time to time. The dog did eat my homework. No, I did not take the last cookie. Yes, there will be a parent at the party.

From little innocent white lies to big fat fibs, kids and adults alike tell lies. It’s a fact of life.

At the very heart of deliberate dishonesty is one fundamental notion. We tell a tall tale because the reality of the situation just won’t be well received. Conscious parenting coach Anna Davis says it’s a complex issue with one simple truth. “We don’t feel safe to tell someone the truth and so we lie,” she says.

Hands up if you’ve told your preschooler that his Lego tower is the most amazing you’ve ever seen? Or told your boss you’re sick and have to skip work — while mentally packing your bag for a planned romantic midweek getaway.

At times we even tell our children that they must lie. For example, when a child receives a gift they don’t like, they’re instructed to pretend to be happy and say they love it.

Lying is a natural part of development

Paul Ekman, the author of Why Kids Lie, says lying is indeed natural behaviour, and that very young kids do it because telling a lie is a way of getting what they want. Their motivation shifts when they become teens — when they are prompted to deceive in order to protect their privacy.

Young kids lie because they want to please their parents. As a parent, you are the centre of your toddler’s universe, you take care of their needs and protect them. Dr Becky from Good Inside says kids are always trying to maximise attachment to parents to boost their sense of security. “If avoiding the truth for that moment helps them feel safe, a lie pays service to that attachment,” she says.

As young children grow and develop, they’ll begin to test boundaries. At age three, kids begin to tell lies as they struggle to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Dr Becky says that at this age there “They’re experimenting with the impact of their words and trying to express themselves, playing around with the power of language,” she says. Dr Becky suggests parents put aside any feelings of anger about being
deceived. “Instead, focus on the fact that your child is just trying to figure out what is real and what’s pretend. Sometimes it can be something they want so badly,” she a fine line between a “wish” and a lie.

But sometimes parents can also catch their child out in a very real and deliberate lie. With chocolate smeared all over his face, your son looks up at you with wide eyed innocence, and when asked, “Did you just help yourself to a cupcake?”, “No”, he says, with an angelic smile.

There are lies that probably can be easily spotted. Then there are others that are harder to discern. New research shows catching your child in a lie if there is no telltale evidence can sometimes be little more than chance. A study that gathered results from a range across 45 experiments on kids and lying showed parents only get it right 47 per cent of the time.

The bulk of research generally points out that kids begin telling lies at age three. Then by age four, they can often detect the difference between truth and a lie. At age five they’ll begin lying to avoid getting into trouble, then from around seven or eight they’ll start telling prosocial (or white) lies to protect another’s feelings.

Kids who lie more also have a higher verbal IQ. That’s according to professor of paediatrics and psychiatry Michael Lewis, who conducted research with three-year olds, asking them not to peek at a toy when the experimenter left the room. He also discovered boys were more likely than girls to confess they’d cheated.

Watch and learn

Some parents might confess to having said to their preschooler, mid-tantrum, “If you don’t stop, the policeman will come and take you away.” You might get away with it a couple of times, but your child will not only learn that police are something to be feared, it will erode trust — because your child will know you lied.

If your child sees you tell half-truths and get away with it, they also learn in subtle ways that it’s OK to bend and stretch the truth, and sometimes to even flat out lie.

And if you regularly lie to your own kids, a study shows they’ll not only become proficient little fibbers, they may face more life challenges than kids raised by parents who modelled the truth. A University of Singapore experiment of 379 young adults showed parenting by lying as a practice has profound negative consequences for children when they grow up — including aggressive behaviour and antisocial tendencies.

Lead author of the study, Assistant Professor Setoh Peipei from Nanyang Technical University’s School of Social Sciences says that parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications. “Consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children’s feelings,
giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problemsolving together,” Professor Peipei says.

The little white lie

Is it ever OK for our kids to tell tall tales? What about lies to protect another’s feelings? After all, as adults we do it. “This curry is amazing,” you say, while shovelling food into a serviette. Or you lie when a close friend asks what you think of their new designer outfit that would stop
traffic, for all the wrong reasons.

White lies make up the biggest percentage of fibs people tell. A 2021 US study by Kim B Serota and colleagues with 631 participants showed lying comprised 7 per cent of total communication and almost 90 per cent of all lies were white lies.

The truth is, little white lies can save someone’s feelings — but they are still lies. Davis suggests that on occasion there is a way to navigate hurtful truths with grace. “Answer the question honestly while withholding information that might be hurtful,” she says.

We’ve all been there. Your child looks up at you and says, “So mummy, is Santa real?” What do you say? Davis says when asked that same question by her two children on different occasions the conversations went like this. “My older daughter said, ‘Mum, I really need to know the truth.’ So I told her the truth. When my younger daughter asked, I said to her, ‘Do you think he’s real?’ She said ‘Yes,’ so that was her answer.”

Look beyond the lie

When your child tells a lie, it’s important to look at what motivated it in the first place. Was your child feeling angry, ashamed or frightened? Davis says tuning into your child’s motivation is important. “We might crack it, yell, blame or shame — but what we really need to do is listen,” she says.

She suggests it can be beneficial to shift your thinking from seeing lying as being something that’s bad and needs to be eradicated to an opportunity for our children to learn and grow.

“All behaviour is communication; if we see the lying as information, then we become curious to see what is motivating the lie,” she explains. “It’s often an unmet need like acceptance, connection or acknowledgement, so then we can help our child to develop those skills to meet those needs.”

If your child does lie and then later comes to you and owns up to it, Davis adds that it’s important to acknowledge that they’ve told the truth. “Thank them for telling you, and focus on the honesty, not the lie,” says Davis. But then later find a teachable moment and talk to the child about whatever action they need to take to remedy what they have been dishonest about.

Big little lies

When kids lie compulsively, you need to dig deep and understand that there is something your child is really struggling with. Davis says sometimes that can be establishing their identity — their authentic self. “They might be lying about who they are as they feel insecure and
vulnerable,” she says.

Getting real with your child also means sharing with them the struggles that you might face yourself when you’re tempted to lie. Dr Becky adds this means acknowledging that telling the truth can be hard. “When you talk to your child say, ‘I know for me telling the truth isn’t easy;
sometimes I have to confront some big feelings — does that ever happen to you?’” she says. “Or, ‘I just want you to know we all sometimes do or say things we’re not proud of — I want to understand what’s going on so I can help you.’”

Don’t harshly punish your child for telling lies — even big ones. Research shows it can have the opposite effect: they’ll lie more. Developmental psychologist Victoria Talwar compared the truth-telling behaviours of West African pre-schoolers from two schools, and discovered those at one school where corporal punishment was given were far more likely to lie to avoid punishment, than those at the other school who were given verbal reprimands.

Encourage truth-telling

How can you encourage your preschooler to stop shovelling peas up his nose and saying he had no idea how they got there? Or your teenager to be truthful about the new top you discovered with the price tag still on hidden under the bed?

Davis says the most common reasons kids lie is because of a breakdown in communication, connection and trust. “We need to model truth-telling, build communication with your child that creates trust and accept them when they do lie so they feel safe to come clean with you,” she says.

It all begins with modelling the behaviour you want your child to emulate. Check in with yourself when you tell a fib. Did you really have to stretch the truth or, even if it felt uncomfortable, could honesty have served you better? Do you need to assess your own behaviour and learn to be more trusting and respectful of others?

To inspire your child to be honest, create a solid foundation of trust. Start explaining early what dishonesty is and sharing your expectations around honesty. Your child also needs to be able to trust you as a parent to follow through on any promises that you make.

Share anecdotes of honesty and how it benefited someone — a young teen who found a wallet and handed it in, and a struggling family were able to put food on the table that week.

When you discover your favourite vase in pieces, you might find your kids get into a verbal volley of “He did it,” “No, she did it,” playing the blame game. At this point it may be helpful to play detective to try to establish who was the perpetrator of the said crime. But you might never discover who broke it. Discuss what happened and reinforce why honesty is a good idea.

Whatever happens, it’s important to keep your cool. Parenting is not an easy gig. Kids can be adept at knowingly pushing your buttons — but it’s vital to press pause if you are getting angry and re-engage when you are feeling calmer.

If your child does damage something or hurts someone, offer consequences that demonstrate accountability. If your child uses your favourite lipstick as a crayon, they can do jobs to earn pocket money to buy a replacement.

It’s also key that if your child is caught out in a lie, you must not label him or her a liar. Labels can be hard to emotionally peel off — and you may just find it’s a label that sticks. Once labelled a liar, your child believes that’s who they are, so why bother telling the truth anyway?

It also pays to avoid situations where your child might just be tempted to lie. “So, was that you who gave the dog a new haircut?” you ask your child while he is still holding the scissors and looking guiltily at the floor. You already know the answer, so you don’t want to nudge your child into fabricating a fib.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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