Why Kids Lie (Are They Learning it from Us?)

Posted March 20, 2008 by

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Last night my 5 year old son looked me straight in the eye and said, “I didn’t do it.” What he didn’t do was tear up a newspaper and throw the pieces all over the kitchen floor while I was on the phone. “Well, then who did?”

I asked, using my best, calm-mom voice. I got The Shrug, and then, “Maybe Boo the Dragon.” Boo is my son’s imaginary friend, a great big white dragon that does any number of things around the house while I’m otherwise occupied. Boo has been up to no good this past week, which coincides with a flu epidemic (the kids keep passing it around like a hot potato at school.) So I’ve had to think about what it means for my son to be lying (It’s reasonably harmless and cute now, but what about later?) and how I should respond.

A recent cover of New York Magazine featured a story on this very subject, “Learning to Lie” Researchers have come up with the theory that it’s actually us—the parents—who teach our kids to lie in the first place. While I don’t think this accounts for 100% of the lies kids tell, there is definitely some truth to this idea. In the article it said, “The most disturbing reason why children lie is that parents teach them to. According to Nancy Talwar, they learn it from us. “We don’t explicitly tell them to lie, but they see us do it. They see us tell the telemarketer, ‘I’m just a guest here.’ They see us boast and lie to smooth social relationships.”

There you go. And I have to admit I’m a culprit here. I actually coached my son on how to behave when he opened presents at his recent birthday party. “Um, don’t make a face even if you don’t like it, OK? And if you already have it, don’t tell your friends or they’ll feel bad.” I did stop short of telling him to say he loved something when he really didn’t, but it was a supreme act of will on my part. So there’s the rub—we teach our kids to lie and then expect them to be honest.

Busted.

I really believe the role you play as a parent probably has the most impact on your young child’s life of almost anything, so I decided I had to start practicing what I was preaching. I’ve been trying to be much more careful about telling “little white lies” around my son, and in general. It’s funny, lying is part of the social glue, but I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be—there really are ways to be honest without hurting someone’s feelings or getting yourself into trouble.

Of course, I haven’t been stopped for a speeding ticket yet….or seen my mother-in-law’s new sofa. (I’ll let you know how it goes!)

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    To ‘Momof3’: Thanks for your question. You seem to have a really good understanding of the importance of role modeling the behavior you want to see from your children. Even though you make an excellent effort to model the type of behavior you want to see from your children, they may still have difficulty solving problems at times. James Lehman states that children lie as a way to solve a problem. What that problem is, exactly, is specific to the child and the situation. Here is an article for more information on lying: Why Kids Tell Lies And What To Do About It.

    Reply
  2. Momof3 Report

    I agree with you Ardella Eagle. Can you give another explanation as to why children lie or where it stems from. I do not “pretend” I like gifts, I don’t sugarcoat. I’m not rude either as I show gratitude for the gesture. I tell marketers the truth and that I’m not interested but thanks. I don’t don’t tell people that their baby is cute or adorable if I don’t think they are, but at the same time I won’t be rude and blurt out that their ugly. Would you reply to or adress Ardella Eagle’s post?

    Reply
  3. Robert Report

    All of the items discussed are great. But I urge you to do an internet search for “Lying to your parents” or “how to sneak out teen” and you will see dozens of websites dedicated to explaining how to children how to lie, sneak out, break laws, avoiding getting caught, how to effectivly lie to your parents, how to regain your parents trust after you’ve been busted, etc., etc. Yes some kids learn how to lie from parents, but there’s a lot of information on the internet, in tv shows, and from their friends that they end up bringing bad/immoral/illegal habits home without learning it from family members.

    Reply
  4. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Angela Goff » Thanks for that observation–I think that the first step is to teach our children why honesty is important. I recently had a conversation with Kathy Ketcham, author of “Teens Under the Influence.” She said that parents need to have conversations with their kids about what it means to forgive, why being kind matters, what trust is and why it’s important, why honesty matters. In short, talk about values with your kids from a young age. The next step is to live the values we teach our kids! (It reminds me of the old saying, “Kids keep you honest.”)

    Reply
  5. Angela Goff Report

    I have noticed that there is one important point missing in all the comments I have read. That is, we do teach our children to lie, but not just through example. We teach them to lie through fear of punishment. Punishment is not nessessary, nor does lack of punishment create spoiled children. How many parents have actually tried to TEACH their children without coercion, control, or fear tactics? This seems to be a novil concept, that we should make no one subordinant to us. We are not gods, and our children should be mentored in being healthy people, not treated like our ‘subjects’.

    Reply
  6. Marion Report

    Through the years my husband and I always tell the truth. This has been one of our biggest commitments to our children and each other. Regarding Santa Claus, we called him “Santadad”, “Santamom”, never a problem. Telemarketers we tell them we are not interested and take us off the list. Straightforward. The point is my kids still lie.

    Reply
  7. Mary Report

    Although I agree that children learn many things from their parents behavior, both good and bad, this is not the basic reason for lying. Have you noticed even very young children have the ability to lie? This comes from our imperfect nature and living in a fallen world. It is completely natural for us to lie. We need to teach our children the importance of telling the truth both in word and action.

    Reply
  8. Nancy Meacham Report

    I raised seven children and I found that they lied when they thought they were going to get into trouble. Those were in the days when spanking was allowed. We told them if they told the truth, they would get 3 swats and if they lied, they would get 6. Nowadays, I would double the time out if they lied, etc. I know that several of the kids just always told the truth so they wouldn’t get a worse punishment, even if what they had to say meant they would get into trouble. So I guess it worked. They are all gainfully employed and enjoy each other, except for the oldest who has chosen a life of drugs, theft, etc with a live in boyfriend. She is 36. She knows she is doing wrong, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with God as a result. If anyone has input about THIS problem, I would appreciate it.

    Reply
  9. vickie Report

    I realize the issue is not telemarketers, but I just don’t answer the phone when I don’t recognize on the caller ID who is calling. That avoids much of that. As of recent years you can also get on the do not call registry and that has stopped virtually most of them.

    Along with the practical steps one can take there is also daily sincere prayer for your kids. When there has been a real struggle I knelt beside them and laid my hand on them gently while they’re sleeping and prayed silently. Also, their memorizing the Bible verse… “lying lips are an abomination unto the Lord, but they that deal truly are His delight”, and remind them of this when necessary and have them recite it again. It helps them to remember their responsibility.

    Reply
  10. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Hi Everyone. Thanks for your comments about lying–and I agree, it’s a tricky problem! I think James Lehman has an interesting take on kids lying. He says that parents need to hold their kids accountable for lying, but not blame them for it.

    Check out his article, “Why Kids Tell Lies and What to do about It”: http://www.empoweringparents.com/kids-lying.php

    (The article has some tips for what to do when kids tell lies, too!)

    Reply
  11. Dan Report

    The tele-marketer issue is an easy one for me. I simply tell them I am not interested then hang up. I don’t give them a chance to try any further. I do explain to my kids that it is generally rude to hang up on people, but there are times you have no choice but to be extreme.

    I live my life trying to always tell the truth about anything and everything. If I did something, then own up to it – good / bad / ugly! I do this in the hopes of the “lead by example” and they pick up what I do. Even when I get things from people, and I do not like it or need it or what have you, I will tell them in a nice way that of my feelings. Honesty is something I want them to take from this. Being honest is VERY hard, and at times it can be very incriminating. The lesson I want to teach my kids is to own and take ownership of things they do and have done. If something doesn’t work, thats fine. Pick up what you learned and not to make the same mistake. That brings me to the second point. Mistakes are ok. EVERYONE makes them. Just learn from them and don’t make them again.

    After saying all of this, it seems my kids DO NOT want to follow my lead. No matter how hard I try, they will not grab onto it and use it for their own. The only thing I can do (in my thoughts) is to continue doing it in HOPES they will grab it at some point. Its a constant battle, and yet they will continue to be deceitful, and find any path to avoid the real issue and own it.

    Reply
  12. Gail Leighton Report

    My son is 14 and lies – I can see your point that we have “conditioned” children to lie and would appreciate other solutions/antidotes to help the older adolescent STOP lying. Obviously, he does it to either get what he wants right now or to keep from getting in trouble for something he has already done. Big things, small things . . . help!

    Reply
  13. Ardella Eagle Report

    And how do you explain the issue when you do not lie to telemarketers or sugar coat things to smooth over relationships? When I get a telemarketing phone call, my response is usually, “Right now is not a very good time to tell me this. Please send the information in the mail”, (not a lie when you are running out the door to get the kids from school or at dinnertime) or my personal favorite response to telemarketing for a newspaper, “Does it come in Braille?” (No, I’m not blind, but I’m not lying if I’m asking a legitimate question. I can’t help what other people deduce)

    I make it a point to tell my kids the truth and let them know that advertisers and yes, Virginia, even the government lies or subverts the truth to make themselves look better. I do not lie when I tell them I do not like a person, even if it is a family member. I do tell them that there are many ways to say the same thing and that they must chose their words carefully so as not to hurt feelings. Another favourite adage I give them is: “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”

    It is of my opinion that children lie as an act of rebellion. Unfortunately, my kids only seem to tell the truth is when they are ratting out on each other. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to encourage thoughtful, truthful responses in children, please let me know.

    Reply
  14. Little White Lies Report

    Busted is right. I told my 5 yo daughter to tell Grandma she loved her birthday gift. So when she opened the present she said, “Mommy says I have to tell you I like things even when I don’t.” Luckily my mother-in-law laughed, but I learned my lesson!

    Reply

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