Dr. Peggy Drexler - Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
It's entirely normal for kids to experiment with lying, starting at an early age -- sometimes as early as two -- and escalating until 12, the age of greatest deceit, according to various studies conducted by Canadian researcher Kang Lee. Some lying is "healthy" lying -- fantasy and imagination at work, like a four-year-old's lie about her teddy bear telling her a secret. Other lies are "white lies" told to benefit another or to avoid hurting someone's feelings, and which tend to start around age six. Most lies kids -- and, for that matter, adults -- tell are more self-serving, however, and told to avoid trouble or punishment, look better in the eyes of others, or get (or get away with) something. This sort of lie from a three-year-old might come out as "someone else" spilling the apple juice on the living room rug. A 10-year-old who's insecure about his math abilities might lie about having already done his math homework.
This sort of lie can also show up, especially in boys, as mischief making. Seven-year-old Bobby always wanted to know "what would happen" if he threw a tennis ball against the house. He waited until his parents were out to tell the babysitter that "Mom lets me do it." He was so insistent, and confident, that the babysitter acquiesced. Later that day, Bobby's mom, Kathy, returned home to find the garage door window shattered in pieces on the driveway. "I suppose now he knew what would happen if you throw a ball against the house," said Kathy. "But then again, he probably always knew." What Bobby had done was use lying to get what he wanted, while also, in his mind, having the ability to "blame" the babysitter for allowing him to do it.
And then there are those kids who tell lies just for kicks, seemingly without anything to gain. In the case of Henry, for instance, insisting that 2 plus 2 was 5 was something he said just because he could; just, Sophie suspected, to see what might happen. Some studies suggest that children with better cognitive abilities tend to lie more, since lying requires first keeping the truth in mind and then manipulating that information. The ability to lie successfully -- something that Henry had not yet learned how to do, though Sophie got the sense he was definitely working his way up to that -- requires even more in the way of thinking and reasoning. Lying proficiency has also been linked to good social skills later on, in adolescence.
That doesn't mean such lies, or any lies kids tell, should go unacknowledged. It's important to raise children to value honesty, and to prevent lying from becoming frequent and consistent, the point at which lying is most troublesome. The first step in figuring out how to address a lie is to consider why your child is telling it. Is the child trying to avoid trouble? Save face? Is he old enough to understand that lying is wrong? A three-year-old who won't cop to coloring on the wall knows that wall coloring is bad, but may not quite understand that lying about it isn't. In such a case, instead of threatening him with punishment, teach him about the value of things.
Gently point out that you think he may know more than he is letting on, and then thank and praise him if he comes clean. This can foster more truth-telling in the future. What's more, in younger and older kids, don't set them up to lie. If you know a child has spilled milk on the living room rug because you saw it happen, don't ask her if she spilled milk on the rug. Instead, ask her why it happened. If you know your 16-year-old has been smoking because you found cigarettes in his car, don't ask him if he's smoking. Ask him when he started.
In all cases, when talking to kids about lying, express your displeasure. Be explicit that it's wrong to lie, and explain why. Make it clear that lying diminishes trust and that the more frequently he lies, the harder it becomes to believe him when he's telling the truth. Establish, and stick with, consequences for lying; the more a child has gotten away with lying, the more likely he is to continue. Try to head lying off at the pass: If you sense a lie is coming, say, "It makes me happy when you tell me the truth." And keep in mind yourself that lying is different from not sharing. This is particularly relevant as kids approach adolescence, when kids may be more reluctant to share information with you, but without necessarily lying. Allowing them to develop their own sense of independence -- that is, resisting the need to know everything -- and being confident in their decision-making will reduce the likelihood that they'll lie to you about the things that really matter.
And above all, with kids of any age, help encourage the notion of truth telling by practicing it yourself. Most adults issue "harmless" lies all day long, within earshot of children. Maybe that's a lie about a kid's age to get a break on tickets to a soccer game. Or telling someone who calls that you can't talk because you're running out the door, when you're about to sit down to watch a movie. Keep in mind that kids, especially those under 10, often can't tell the difference between small lies and big ones. They just know it’s happening. And that lying is a learned -- but changeable -- behavior. The more they're conditioned to hearing lies, the more they'll think they're a normal part of behavior, and vice versa. Which means the biggest truth of all is that raising honest kids starts with you.
Most parents strive for a close, meaningful relationship with their children. These relationships are based on honesty, respect, trust and love. Yet, child development experts recognize that lying is a natural part of child development. Figuring out how to respond to your child when you suspect lying (or have caught him in a lie) depends on his age and level of development.
Like almost everything else, children learn to lie from observing the people around them. Parents and teachers show children in subtle and not so subtle ways to suppress their honesty. “Look at that ugly shirt,” a child will yell. “I don’t like this,” she’ll say about a gift. Or, “Yuck, I’m not going to eat this,” he says when food doesn’t taste good. Adults teach children that this kind of honesty is not appropriate, that there is a fine line between being honest and hurting someone else’s feelings.
It’s important to remember that when a child lies, she is trying to change a situation to the way she wants it to be. That’s why most lies told by kids are self-serving and intended to avoid punishment, to look better in the eyes of others, or to get away with something. Our kids are concerned with disappointing us and may fear punishment for admitting a mistake or wrong-doing. They may be more likely to avoid the whole truth when the punishment is severe or when parents have unrealistically high expectations for their children. Kids, like adults, sometimes lie to maintain privacy, protect a friend, or demonstrate power.
A child’s experience of honesty and lying evolves and changes over time. Preschoolers making up stories is part of a normal fantasy life for young children. It is viewed as a positive sign of developing intelligence and an active imagination. At this age, children do not have a clear distinction between reality and make-believe. When preschoolers do engage in intentional dishonesty it is usually to avoid a punishment or there is concern of disappointing the parent.
School-age children, around 5 or 6 have learned the difference between lies and the truth. Children ages 5-8 will tell more lies related to school regarding classes, teachers, homework, and friends. Children at this age lie because often the demands they feel are too much. Consequently, kids will lie to appease the adults when they are expected to do more than they feel up for. Fortunately, most lies, such as “we don’t have any math homework today” are easy to recognize. The goal is to talk openly with your child about the importance of being honest, while being mindful of your child’s vulnerability (which motivated the dishonesty in the first place). Leaning in gently with statements like, “I know you have been working so hard at school all day,” will help your child feel understood. This will open the door for you to explore the specific nature of your concerns with your child’s honesty. Also, notice when your child is being honest and give praise and positive feedback. Kids love to hear that they are doing things will that are not easy!
It’s important to remember that school-age children are great observers, so be careful about making reflexive lies you may be used to saying such as, “I didn’t eat your Halloween candy” when there is no other explanation for its supply being reduced by half. Otherwise, you risk undermining your credibility regarding expectations for honesty.
By the time children become tweens, (ages 9-12), most are well on their way to establishing a trustworthy and conscientious identity. However, they can also be more skilled at maintaining lies, more aware of the consequences of their actions, and they likely have strong feelings of guilt after lying. Chronic lying for these older children is often a rebellion against restrictions. Direct, honest conversations not only about honesty but also about your child’s experience of expectations and fairness can open up a healthy dialogue.
While lying is a normal aspect of growing up, that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. It’s important to raise children to value honesty, and to prevent lying from becoming frequent and habitual. The first step is to figure out why your child is lying. Is the child lying to avoid a consequence? Is it to enhance self-esteem? If you suspect that your child is being dishonest, gently let her know that you think she may know more that she is telling you. Then, give praise and thank her for being honest with you when she tells you the truth. If you know for sure your child has done something that you don’t like, don’t set him up to lie. For example, for an older child, if you find cigarettes in his room, don’t ask him if he smokes. Ask him when he started smoking.
The ongoing process of fostering honesty as a fundamental character trait is something that can be done outside the heat of the moment as well. Look for ready-made opportunities via a TV show you are watching together or a news story. You can let your child know that it is wrong to lie, and explain why. Make it clear to your child that lying diminishes trust. Set clear consequences for lying and stick with them. But also be ready to give your child a way out that does not involve shame. For example, if you sense a lie is coming, tell your child “it makes me happy when you tell me the truth” or “I’m here to help you no matter what the truth is” or like my husband and I tell our kids, “you will never get in trouble for telling me the truth.” Setting the stage for your children to be honest even when it is difficult is worth every ounce of effort – and that’s the truth.