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

Posted by Elisabeth Wilkins

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.


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

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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