The first time you catch your child in an outright lie, you may freak. Is this the beginning? you wonder. Today my three-year-old is fibbing about taking Daddy’s pen, tomorrow he’s wall art at the post office? OK, you’re overreacting. Parents tend to do that when their kids lie, sure that it signals some major character defect. But unless the habit becomes chronic, you don’t have to be overly concerned.
You should, however, address the lie and help your child understand the importance of telling the truth. “Children don’t fully master the concept of honesty as a character trait until they’re around ten,” says Stanley Greenspan, M.D., professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and a member of Partnership with Parents. “So, like any concept, you need to keep going over it and over it with them.” How you approach the issue depends on your child’s age and what he’s capable of understanding. A lie means different things at different stages of development.
Ages two to four
Typical lie No. 1 didn’t spill the juice.”
She’s holding the cup, her shoes are soaked and, OK, you saw her do it. Kids are capable of lying from a very early age, usually to avoid punishment. But until they’re four or so, they don’t quite grasp the concept that a lie is only successful when they make another person believe something false. In fact, it wouldn’t occur to them that they might know something you don’t.
Your approach Explain that if she tells the truth about who spilled the juice, all that will happen is that she will have to clean it up. But if she lies, she will have to clean it up and have a time-out. “You want to be calm, react with a hint of humor, but let kids know they won’t benefit from the lie,” Dr. Greenspan says.
Typical lie No. 2 “My dog can talk.”
This is not fibbing but magical thinking–“If I believe something hard enough, it will happen.” If you listen closely, you’ll probably pick up dues to what your child is really wishing for.
Your approach Kids outgrow this stage by school age, but in the meantime, enjoy it, experts urge. You can even encourage the fantasy. “What does the dog have to say? How does she like the food so far? Does she know where the remote is?”
Ages five to eight
Typical lie No. 1 “Yeah, I cleaned my room.”
So how come there isn’t a square inch of floor showing? Kids this age will lie to get out of doing something they don’t want to do (no surprise). But they don’t yet think about what might happen when you open the door to their room (or come upon the still-empty dog dish or ask to see the thank-you notes they swore they wrote).
Your approach Talk about truthfulness and trust, but keep it positive. Explain why families work better when members know they can count on one another’s word. Set separate consequences for the misdeed and the lie, so your child understands that lying in itself is a misdeed.
Typical lie No. 2 “He hit me first!”
During these years, many mistruths have to do with sibling interactions or fights with friends. You hear a commotion in the other room, and when you check it out, both kids swear the other one hit first, broke the toy, hogged the game controls–whatever. One of them is lying, but you don’t have a clue which one.
Your approach If you weren’t there to see it, don’t try to figure it out. In relationships this complex, the truth is rarely clear-cut, anyway. Instead, suggest the two settle it themselves, adding that if they don’t, each will go to his room (or, in the case of friends, you’ll end the play date).
Ages nine to twelve
Typical lie No. 1 “My parents let me watch South Park.”
As kids enter those precarious preteen years, their peers’ approval becomes more important. Be prepared for a lot of showboating that elevates them in their friends’ eyes.
Your approach If you happen to overhear such a boast, or if you hear about it from another parent, don’t humiliate your kid by giving away the lie in front of others. “At this moment, it’s more important to protect a child’s dignity than to insist on the truth,” says Maurice Elias, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. When you show him that he can trust you, he’ll be less apt to lie about other things he knows you’d disapprove of. Wait until you’re alone and say something like, “That was quite a story, but I can see where it might make you feel special around your friends.” Then talk about better ways to achieve the same end. (If, however, such boasting becomes a regular pattern, you may want to call your child on it more directly.)
Typical lie No. 2 “No, I don’t have any homework due tomorrow.”
Technically, your daughter is telling the truth: The report on The Crucible isn’t due till the end of the week. Of course, she should be drafting it tonight, not to mention reading past the first act. Lies of omission become common at this age because (actually, this is good news) your child’s conscience is emerging, Elias says. “She’s beginning to understand implications. She thinks that if she doesn’t directly utter a mistruth, then she’s not lying.”
Your approach Elias encourages what he calls the Columbo technique, named for the rumple-coated TV detective. Instead of browbeating the perpetrator, Columbo asks a lot of silly questions until the guy slips up. “You have no homework at all due tomorrow? Really, I see. So, what are you studying in English these days? You’re reading The Crucible? Sounds tough. I didn’t read that until high school. Are you going to be holding a mock trial? Writing anything about it?” And so on, until the homework dates are clarified.
Make it clear to your child that in your book, lies of omission (and hair-splitting) are just as serious as outright whoppers. Be explicit about your expectations. Let her know that the consequences will be much less severe if she’s the one to tell you that she got lunchtime detention for fooling around in music class than if you hear it from someone else.
when fibbing means trouble
* Your child lies chronically, not just as a once-in-a-while attempt to avoid punishment or show off.
* He lies in many situations–at home, at school, with friends.
* He lies and has other difficulties as well, such as trouble with schoolwork or making friends. Be concerned, too, if your child seems unusually anxious; lying may be a way to draw attention away from bigger worries.
A deceitful child may be deeply unhappy or troubled and may need professional counseling. Talk to your pediatrician.
parent do’s and don’ts
* Do remember who’s watching you Don’t buy the “under ten” ticket for your young-looking 12-year-old. Don’t ask your kids to tell Aunt Lucy you’re not home when you are. Don’t gush over a friend’s new haircut, then snicker at it on the car ride home. “Guess where kids learn the utility of lying?” asks Paul Ekman, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco. You can, however, teach the art of the graceful social lie, to have them say, “Thank you so much for inviting me to your party,” rather than, “Your party stank!”
* Do let kids save face Back them into a corner–“I want to know who spilled the soda on the keyboard, and I want to know it now!”–and you may learn nothing. Tell your children that you’re wise to the mess and you expect the guilty party to make himself known by bedtime. When he does, praise him for his honesty, then work out appropriate consequences for breaking the “no food near the computer” rule.
* Don’t make punishments too harsh A kid may feel it’s better to take his chances with a lie. Let him know that if he comes clean about misdeeds, the consequences will be a lot lighter than if he fibs.