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"Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!" Understanding and Addressing Lying in Kids

Posted by Douglas Haddad

Children lie about all kinds of things for a variety of reasons. Why do children fabricate stories about doing their homework, who they are hanging out with, and what behaviors they are engaging in outside of the home? Recent studies have found that most children learn to lie between the ages of two and four. It is part of their emotional and intellectual development. However, from about age four on, children learn to lie from the people around them. Take for instance a shirt that a child receives on his birthday from his grandparents. The parents say to the child, “Don’t tell Grandma you don’t like the shirt. Make sure you say, ‘Thank you,’ and tell her that you like it.”

Lying vs. “Truthiness”

Lying has taken on a strange kind of acclaim by being popularized as “truthiness” on the Comedy Central television program The Colbert Report. The American Dialect Society voted “truthiness” as one of its past “Words of the Year.” It refers to “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” How serious is it for your child to display “truthiness” versus blatant lying?  Can a distinction be made between the two?

Why children don’t tell the truth

Children lie for different reasons at different ages. A ten year old may tell his friend that he has courtside tickets to a basketball game when, in fact, he doesn’t — so he appears “cool” and is accepted into the peer group. While on the other hand, a sixteen year old may break his curfew and make up a story about his whereabouts. This may be his attempt at gaining independence by pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules, while trying to avoid getting caught.

Some of the most common reasons children lie are: to seek attention from others, to avoid punishment, to protect someone’s feelings, maintain privacy or keep a secret, to be accepted, to cover up a more serious problems (i.e. substance abuse, alcohol, learning disabilities, etc.), because they actually believe the lie to be the truth, when they don’t feel safe and secure enough to tell the truth, when they have an impulsive and/or compulsive nature and react abruptly, or if they don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

Regardless of your child’s motive, it is important that you possess the strategies necessary for addressing this behavior effectively and knowing when to make it a “big deal” and when to let it slide. For instance, when your child comes home from school and tells you that he came in first place in the mile run by setting a new school record when he really didn’t, what should you do? Keep in mind, he may be trying to get your attention and impress you or he really wishes he could achieve this feat and this is his way at inflating his confidence. Despite the exaggeration, it is important not to ridicule your child for this embellished story, but rather appreciate who he is. However, I would recommend to privately discuss the unpleasant consequences of storytelling and how a feeling of guilt builds up when lies and exaggerations are repeatedly told.

Related: Why kids lie and what to do about it.

How to encourage your child to tell the truth

Although lying is actually a normal aspect of your child’s development, that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. In order for children to appreciate the value of “telling the truth,” they have to feel safe in confiding their feelings openly and honestly with parents. As children grow into adolescence, they desire being listened to, understood, and want to feel that what they are saying matters.

Here are strategies you can use with your children to help them tell the truth on a regular basis:

First and foremost, be the best example of truth in all that you do in your life and model honest behavior on a regular basis. Set up a safe, caring environment that promotes your child to be honest by assuming that family members tell the truth.

Teach the value of honesty at home and reinforce the value of good behavior at school.  A discussion of being honest will help your child grow up to be an honest adult. Refrain from telling your child to lie or not tell the other parent something.  This action will provide a confusing message to your child and can lead to chronic, habitual lying.

Praise truth telling, especially if it was difficult  to do so for your child. Expect good from your child and make it clear that you trust his/her decision-making. And lastly, involve your child in developing rules at home and at  school.  Be clear with your expectations.

Strategies to effectively address children when they are “caught in the act” of lying”

1. Be calm.  Don’t overreact to the situation and belabor a lie. Give your child a chance to confess a lie and explain his or her actions.

2. Investigate.  Try to discover the underlying reasons for why your child has lied and address the issue.

3. Discuss the effects of lying on the relationships with other people in your child’s life.

4. Don’t take lying personally. Address the actual act of lying and not the character of the child who lied.

5. For repeated lies, make your child accountable for his/her actions.  Let’s say your child hasn’t done homework. Rather than taking away privileges immediately, make him/her accountable by getting a progress report from the teacher and then make your child complete those missed assignments (no matter if he/she can still obtain credit).  If the report is consistently good, allow your child to earn back your trust. Consequently, your child has learned a valuable lesson: good choices breed rewards and poor choices equal unpleasant consequences.

6. Give your child the opportunity to earn back the trust broken. Forgive him/her by moving forward.

Bonus: Problem-solving questions to help your child when faced with a choice to tell the truth or lie:

  • Would I be proud of the choice that I made?
  • Would those who truly care about me respect that decision?
  • Would I strengthen my inner being by making that choice?
  • Would I help someone more by doing that?
  • Would I want someone to treat me that way?

If your child answers “NO” to ANY of the above TRUTH QUESTIONs, it’s probably the wrong choice.

If your child answers “YES” to ALL of the above TRUTH QUESTIONS…

Great decision made! The action would be the right one to make!


About Douglas Haddad

Douglas Haddad is an award-winning educator and best-selling author of The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens: Strategies for Unlocking Your Child's Full Potential. He has worked with children in a variety of capacities as a teacher, coach, and mentor. Through his innovative teaching styles and educational games, music, and videos he has originally created for children, Douglas has helped different learners become motivated, set goals, self-manage, learn how to make good choices, become happy, healthy, self-reliant and stable-minded, and navigate through peer pressures to overcome the many challenges that they are faced with each day.

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