Out of my three kids, I have one who lies like it’s nothing. All the time. Even over little things.
Me: Did you brush your teeth?
Me: Are you telling me the truth?
Him (sheepishly): No.
Sometimes, I seriously worry if he will turn into a pathological liar . . . if I need to take him to a neurologist or a therapist or both. Most of the time, I realize he’s just being a kid.
Why do kids lie? Is it always just about getting out of trouble, or is there something deeper going on? More importantly, how do we teach our kids honesty? How can we train them not to lie, about both the little things and the big things?
As Christian parents, we know that honesty is an important part of character building. We want to raise honest kids who become honest adults; people whose word can be trusted.
Psychologists give several reasons that children lie:
- to get something they want
- to avoid a consequence/punishment
- to get out of something they don’t want to do
- because they are just “trying it out”—to see what will happen if they do
- to enhance self-esteem and gain approval
- to get the focus off of themselves
- to spare someone’s feelings
Typical Reasons for Lying
Those first three are the ones we typically think of when we hear our kids lie. He doesn’t want to get in trouble for not brushing his teeth, so he says he did. He wants to go outside to play, so he says he’s already finished his homework. He doesn’t want to get in trouble for hitting his sister, so he says he didn’t, even though I just saw him do it.
It’s a natural human reaction to do whatever it takes to avoid punishment or pain, even if it’s not very rational. For a lot of kids, lying is almost a reflex; they don’t even think about it. In fact, clinical psychologist Dr. Carol Brad, says that lots of kids with ADHD lie out of impulsivity. One of the traits of ADHD is that a child acts before he/she thinks. In those situations, while we can and should punish the behavior, we also need to help the child learn to slow down and think before they speak. If your child lies a lot, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid; it just means you need to teach them how to control those natural impulses and be honest instead. Dr. Brady writes that for kids with ADHD (or who seem to have a habit of lying without really thinking about it for any reason), we can try a few other tactics:
1. As you ask the question, say, “Now, really think about your answer and make sure you are telling me the truth…” Then ask, “Did you brush your teeth?”
2. Encourage your child to pause before speaking. Teach them to count to three before answering every question and to use that time to formulate a truthful answer.
3. Give your child the opportunity to reconsider their answer. Say, “Did you really finish your homework? I’ll give you another chance to answer truthfully, with no consequences for lying.”
If you think your child is lying impulsively, not really intentionally, these tips can really help them to slow down and think about their answers before speaking.
Lying to get out of trouble isn’t okay, so if a child lies about it, he or she may get in trouble for the original thing and for lying about it. Double trouble! My kids know that if they hit their sibling, they’ll get a consequence. But if I find out they lied about it, they’ll get in way more trouble than if they had just come clean and confessed, because we’re trying to train that reflex out of them. We also talk about lying and why it’s important to maintain a reputation of being an honest person, so people will trust you. No one wants to become “the boy who cried wolf”!
Developmental Reasons for Lying
Some kids lie just to see what will happen if they do. At every stage of development, all kids try new behaviors to see what they can get away with, both with their parents and authority figures and with their friends. You can see it really clearly with kids who are learning sarcasm and other methods of joking around with friends. They try out a joke and if it doesn’t go over well, they learn not to use that one, and they adjust from there. This is a normal part of human social development. Kids do the same thing when testing boundaries with their parents. As kids age, they try disobeying a rule or telling a lie to see how their parents will react, to see if they can get away with it. Pushing boundaries is a perfectly normal and natural stage of child development. But as parents, we have to stand firm with our rules and be consistent or kids will quickly learn they can push us over.
Deeper Reasons for Lying
A child’s other reasons for lying are much deeper and more complicated.
To gain approval: Kids who lack confidence may lie to make themselves seem more impressive to other people. They may exaggerate the number of soccer goals they made or even tell an outright lie about saving someone from drowning in the ocean.
To get the focus off of themselves: Kids with anxiety, depression, or chronic illnesses may lie about their symptoms to get the spotlight off of them. They may say they feel fine about something when they are really terrified simply because they don’t want people worrying about them. Kids who are very shy may lie about their accomplishments because they don’t want the attention.
With these reasons for lying, there are deeper root issues to be explored. In these cases, it’s best to not simply punish the behavior or just talk about lying. You have to get at the root of the issue. Why does your kid feel like they have to inflate their sense of self-worth? Why do they feel like they have to lie to get the attention off of themselves? What is going on underneath all of that? In these cases, lying is just a symptom of a bigger problem.
To spare someone’s feelings: Kids who are deeply empathetic may lie to make someone feel better. They may say they didn’t get invited to a party either to a friend who wasn’t invited. Or tell a friend their joke didn’t hurt their feelings when it really did so they won’t feel bad. Or tell their mom that her dress looks nice even if it’s hideous.
This is a tough one because many adults do this as well. And many of us believe it is actually an act of kindness to tell these kinds of lies to people we love. That can be a very tricky thing to explain to children who typically see things in very black and white terms. “If lying is wrong, then I have to tell my mom that dress makes her tooshie look bigger!” These are the times when we can use our grandma’s old saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”