A typical four-year-old lies about once every two hours, according to some studies. A typical six-year-old lies even more often (hourly)! Fellow parents: What do we do about this deception? How can we build trust with our kids and prevent them from growing up into psychopaths? This is the dilemma I'm learning to deal with now.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
My daughter and I have a great bond, I think. She's comfortable enough in our relationship to openly confess to me when she thinks she's done something bad, which, at nine years old, are things like not eating the snack I packed for her or forgetting a library book at home. But sometimes when I have to confront her about what I believe are apparent lies, she'll stubbornly stick to her version of the story and then we're both upset, at an impasse where I don't know what to do.
For example, the other day she went up to bed and I told her she could read one more chapter of the book she had started. An hour later, as I'm going up the stairs towards the room, I hear her dashing footsteps and before I reach the door she's standing there saying "Oh hi, Mummy, I was just coming to tell you I can't sleep. I was trying to go to sleep this whole time with my eyes closed." The light's still on, there's the open book on the side table, and she's staring at some spot behind me. I can't prove she wasn't trying to sleep — and research suggests the "shifty eye" effect isn't always a sign of lying — but I'm pretty in tune with my daughter, and know with about 99.9998% certainty she wasn't telling the truth. "Were you really trying to sleep?" I ask, probably with too much disapproval in my voice, and her answer is now an adamant yes. The thing that gets me is that I don't even really care that much about her staying up later because she's immersed in a book (things could be worse), though I want to make sure she gets enough sleep. It's the defiant lying that's infuriating me now, over a relatively small thing. Why couldn't she just tell me she couldn't stop reading?
I'm angry because I want her to be honest with me and tell her I don't like lying, but then she gets unhinged too, saying she doesn't like that I've assumed she's lying and don't believe her. Occasional struggles like these make me fear for when she's a teenager, when she'll be exposed to more dangerous activities that require sneaking around. (Have you seen that movie Kids? If you're a parent, you do not want to see that movie.) So I did some digging into what exactly might be happening here and how to best handle these situations.
First of All: Lying Is Normal
If you've never told a lie, let us know, because you should go down in fiction with George Washington. All of the rest of us have lied (and continue to lie, like every 10 minutes), because we see it as a solution to some problems. Kids pretend to be sick to skip a big test at school just like adults call in sick when they have a dreaded workload the next day. We tell each other white lies to spare each other's feelings. For growing children, there are also developmental reasons to lie. In fact, lying is actually a good sign in young kids.
PsychCentral notes that between the ages of 3 and 7, young kids' imagination and creativity can blur the line between a "lie" and their version of the truth. After all, this is the age of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and imaginary friends. Sometimes "fake-believe" (to borrow a made up word from They Might Be Giants) plays such a strong part in a child's mind that they convince themselves that what they're lying about is real. It is the truth to them that the dog stole some of their food, not that they intentionally dropped that pasta on the floor. (Heck, adults do this self-foolery thing too, io9 points out, although I'm not sure we can fall back on the "overactive imaginations and developing brains" excuse.)
By the age of four, 90% of children grasp the concept of lying. Psychologists consider it a developmental milestone and even an integral part of healthy brain development. In fact, kids who do best in academic evaluations are able to start lying at the age of 2 or 3. "Lying is related to intelligence," Dr. Victoria Talwar, a leading expert on children's lying behaviour, says. Preschoolers with higher IQ scores are more likely to lie and tell tall tales, and early lying is also linked to greater social skills later in life: Some kids who are particularly mature socially will tell "white lies" that benefit someone else, such as taking the blame for a brother or sister.
So on one hand, I suppose parents can be proud if their children learn the lying skill at an early age, but on the other hand, it's not a habit we want them to develop.
How Kids' Lying Evolves
As kids get older, they become more sophisticated at lying. Around the age of 10, they're no longer lying just to avoid reprimands or earn rewards, they also lie to navigate an increasingly complex social world: to brag to their peers, to avoid being labelled a "tattler" (the worst thing you can be in middle school), and to make others feel better or avoid hurting other's feelings. We parents actually teach our kids to lie when we force them to say they love a crappy gift in the name of politeness and make these kinds of white lies ourselves. In essence, lying becomes a solution to avoid conflict.
Even when kids know that lying is wrong, they lie because they feel it isn't that hurtful or they think it's not a big deal. In an interview with Empowering Parents, social worker James Lehman explains the thinking kids (and also adults) have when rationalizing lying:
They know lying is forbidden. But they don't see it as hurtful. Not the way that parents see it as hurtful. So a kid will say, "I know it's wrong that I ate a sugar snack when I'm not supposed to. But who does it hurt?" "I know it's wrong that I traded my dried fruit for a Twinkie. But it doesn't really hurt anybody. I can handle it. What's the big deal?" That's what the kid sees.
When they don't see it as hurtful, there are two different value systems operating: the family's value system that says this is forbidden and the kid's value system that says if it's not hurting anybody, what do you care? The kid rationalizes his actions and justifies his behaviour with the idea that it doesn't hurt anybody. The outcome is a dishonest situation. A lie.
When you get to adolescence, of course, the stakes get much higher. But the thinking remains the same. Kids smoke pot and drink and say, "Well it doesn't hurt anybody. My friends smoke pot and it doesn't hurt them. I know drinking's wrong, but my parents drink and it doesn't hurt them. I can handle it. I'm older than my parents think I am." They know it's forbidden. They either don't see it as hurtful, or they rationalize the hurt away.
Our job as parents is to help our kids see how lying can be hurtful and is not the best problem-solving method. Simply saying, "Listen, honesty is the best policy" isn't enough to cut it.
How to Handle Lying
Our responses when we catch our kids being dishonest can either push them to be more sneaky or encourage more honesty. Here are some guidelines, based on what research shows and parenting experts' recommendations.
Stay calm and take emotions out of it. I know I could have handled this better myself in the past. When catching my daughter in a lie — sometimes obvious ones (I know you didn't brush your teeth in the ten seconds you were in the bathroom!) — I'd feel insulted and hurt and focused on those angry feelings and my fear of a growing distrust between us. Because my daughter is so attached to me (as of now) and wants to avoid disapproval at all costs, however, my emotional reaction was just teaching her to not get caught in a lie, rather than not to lie. A better course is to focus not on "your lie hurt me" but the more logical aspect of "why did you say that and what did you hope to achieve?" Scholastic says:
Cool down before doing anything. The calmer you are, the better you'll communicate. The first step is to convey the message that a behaviour — stealing, for example — is wrong. Then, address why your child lied about what he did. Remember that some children will lie to avoid anger even more than to avoid punishment.
Consider the goal of your child's lie. [Was] he trying to avoid punishment? Perhaps he was frightened by the consequences of what he did and of making a mistake. What might he be feeling? Anxious, guilty, ashamed, scared? There is always a motive and meaning for what children tell us. It won't hurt to ask yourself what your child is gaining by telling a lie.
Give your kid the benefit of the doubt — and a way out. Sometimes we might trap our kids into lying to us when of course that's not the goal. Instead of saying "did you brush your teeth?" in an accusatory tone (clearly she didn't), just say "You were in there for such a short time, I don't think you brushed long enough. Let's go back and do it more thoroughly." The goal at this time is to avoid cavities, not conduct an honesty crusade. Alternatively, you can help your child dig herself out: "You were in there for such a short time. Are you sure you brushed enough?" which could lead to an explanation (you might or might not believe) like "Well, I tried to brush but couldn't get the toothpaste out." Acting like an interrogator just makes kids more scared and makes it harder for them to tell the truth the next time.
If you're not absolutely sure your child has done something wrong, just say you're concerned, have suspicions, and will be keeping an eye out on their behaviour, rather than accusing them of lying. PsychCentral also advises never labelling a kid a liar, lest they become convinced it's impossible for them to be good.
Emphasise the benefits of honesty, not the wrongness of lying. Telling a child "honesty is the right thing to do," is more effective in preventing lying than saying "lies are wrong and will get you in trouble," Talwar's study found. In her classic "temptation resistance test," children had to guess what object was placed behind them in order to receive a reward. When researchers suddenly left the room — warning the kids not to peek — 67.8% of the children peeked at the toy and lied about doing so. However, after telling the kids that telling the truth was the right thing to do, the percentage of kids who lied dropped to 40% — as long as they weren't threatened with punishment. (Punishing kids for lying might only make them lie more: 80% of the kids lied after being told they'd be punished if they peeked and also that telling the truth was the right thing to do.)
Similarly, when kids read the story of George Washington being rewarded for confessing to chopping down the cherry tree, they were less likely to lie than if they were told the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf (a fable warning that if you lie, no one will believe you later).
If you want to get the truth out of your child, you can say "I will not be upset with you and I will be really happy if you tell the truth" but of course you have to follow through if your child fesses up. We're establishing trust here, so even if you're furious your kid downloaded malware that wrecked your computer, you can't display that anger after using this tactic (just curse in your head while you rebuild your PC).
Give your kid some autonomy and be willing to argue against the rules. Preteens and teens will lie, if they have to, to do things their peers are doing — dating, going to parties, and, yes, smoking and drinking — as they start to want more independence. New York Magazine says:
By withholding details about their lives, adolescents carve out a social domain and identity that are theirs alone, independent from their parents or other adult authority figures. To seek out a parent for help is, from a teen's perspective, a tacit admission that he's not mature enough to handle it alone. Having to tell parents about it can be psychologically emasculating, whether the confession is forced out of him or he volunteers it on his own. It's essential for some things to be "none of your business."
However, being a more very permissive parent doesn't necessarily make teens more forthcoming either, as a lack of rules could signal to the kids that their parents don't care. The best approach, it seems, is to find the middle ground between being completely permissive and being a strict, oppressive parent. Research suggests that teens are more likely to tell their parents about things they knew are against the rules if they thought their parents might budge.
Consider setting just a few unbreakable rules and trying to reach consensus on the rest:
"Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids," [Dr. Nancy] Darling observes. They have set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they have explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life's other spheres, they supported the child's autonomy, allowing them freedom to make their own decisions.
The kids of these parents lied the least. Rather than hiding twelve areas from their parents, they might be hiding as few as five.
Act like a traffic cop. Speaking of rules, lying should best be treated as a "breaking the rules" situation, rather than a moral one. The most practical advice I found comes from Empowering Parents, which recommends treating lying the way a cop deals with speeding:
I think parents have to deal with lying the way a cop deals with speeding. If you're going too fast, he gives you a ticket. He's not interested in a lot of explanations from you. He's just going to give you a consequence. Look at it the same way with your child. He didn't tell the truth, whether the truth was distorted, omitted or withheld. There should simply be consequences for that. The first time you lie, you go to bed an hour early. The second time, you lose your phone. It should be something that the kid feels. You lose your phone for twenty four hours. You lose your phone for two days. You lose computer time or TV time.[…]
The consequence should be about the lying. If there's a separate consequence for the incident, that should come down separately. If you come home later than your curfew and you tell me the truth, you may still lose going out Friday night, but you won't lose your phone. If you lie to me, you lose both.
Parents should not get into the morality of it. Just be clear. Lying is wrong, it's hurtful and, in our home, we tell the truth. But don't make it a moral issue. Make it a technical issue. You broke the law. You broke the rules. These are your consequences.
I'm going to start printing tickets for lying violations.
Be a role model. Finally, remember the most important advice for all parents when it comes to any parenting issue: Be the change you want to see in your child. Or, as Robert Fulghum said: "Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you." We've got to be more honest with and around our kids too.