It was clear that something serious had happened to the computer screen — all the colours were distorted and smudged together. The magnetic wand from a science kit lay on the floor. But here’s the funny thing: No one had done it. Not the owner of the wand. Not his adventurous sister. Not even the bewildered toddler who was sitting closest to the magnet. It was then that I learned that kids tell occasional lies. Right to your face.
Lies (and the reasons kids tell them) change as your child grows — just as your response does. But there’s good news: A thoughtful reaction to a kid’s indiscretion reassures her that no matter what has happened, you’ll help her through.
Toddlers and preschoolers
Fairies, fantasy and fibs
Someone has been practising scissor skills. There are mangled shreds of hydro and phone bills all over the floor. Your four-year-old tells you that his sister did it. This seems unlikely: His sister is two months old and not interested in crafts.
Why they lie
Very little kids don’t exactly lie. “To lie, children have to know that what they are saying is false — they have to understand the difference between a lie and the truth. That usually doesn’t happen before the age of four,” says Debbie Nystrom, manager at the Mothercraft Brookfield Place, Centre for Early Development in Toronto.
Later in the preschool years, a child’s imagination is developing, and he starts to explore with his thoughts and may begin to make up stories. “Preschoolers may mix make-believe and reality — they combine stories, putting something they saw on TV together with an event that really did happen,” says Nystrom.
An older preschooler may lie to get some advantage or to protect himself against unwanted consequences, such as having a toy taken away. As much as we dislike lying, “it’s all part of natural, normal growth and development,” says Nystrom.
What to do
• React in a calm tone and approach the situation as a teaching opportunity. You might say, “I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened — do you think it happened that way?” If the lie is hurtful, you could try saying, ‘How would you feel if someone said that to you?’”
• Focus on fixing the problem together. Suppose your preschooler draws on the floor; you might say, ‘We draw on paper. Now come help Daddy so we can clean it up together.”
• Explain why the truth is important. If the lie puts your child at risk (maybe he’s hidden your sewing shears or plugged in the hair dryer), make sure he understands that telling the truth helps you keep him safe.
• Make a practice of negotiating some choices with your child so he knows he has a say in what he eats, wears, plays with. Then he doesn’t have to make up a story to do it his way.
Truth and consequences
You’re on a scavenger hunt collecting the family’s library books. One is missing. Your seven-year-old tells you her friend borrowed it — and lost it. A few questions reveal that this isn’t what happened. It was an inside job.
Why they lie
School-aged kids are able to predict what’s going to happen: If a book is lost, someone is going to be angry. If homework isn’t done, there will be trouble. “Once children start reaching six, their brains are developing and they know more about consequences,” says Judy Arnall, a Calgary parent educator and author of Discipline Without Distress. “By eight, they get cause and effect. So a lot of lying is to avoid getting into trouble.”
What to do
• Try not to punish. Kids who are afraid of punishment won’t tell you what’s happening — they want to avoid unpleasant consequences, so they leave you out of the loop. “If you avoid punishment, you open up the lines of communication so they can come to you for help,” says Arnall.
• Help your child understand what’s wrong with lying. “It’s OK to say, ‘That’s a lie and I don’t like lies.’ Explain how lying breaks down trust and you need to trust each other,” says Arnall. “It may take a few times, but when your child comes to you with the truth and you don’t freak out, she will learn to come more often.”
• Share your values in words — and actions. “Many parents lie about kids’ ages to get into the movies,” says Arnall. “What is that telling kids?”
• Deal with the original misdemeanour that caused her to lie. If your child lost a book and lied about it, help her come up with a solution. Make use of her growing ability to figure things out. “Problem solving is a great tool because children get to benefit from parents’ guidance in brainstorming and the problem-solving process,” says Arnall.
• When your child is truthful, make sure that she knows you appreciate her honesty. Let her know that she can trust you to help her get what she needs — without lying.
Preteens and teens
A convenient un-truth
Your 12-year-old takes public transportation to school. You don’t worry (much) because he comes directly home on the express bus. One day, he’s very late, with a shaky story about a band meeting gone overtime. A chance conversation reveals that the delay wasn’t so much a band meeting as an impromptu get-together with his buddies.
Why they lie
Many of the lies preteens and teens tell involve their social life — who they’re with and what they’re up to. “They have lives independent from their parents. Lying isn’t necessarily devious, but it’s a feeling that ‘I can do things I don’t have permission to do for the first time in my life!’” says Janet Morrison, a Toronto psychological associate in private practice.
The trend continues through the early teen years — the child wants to make more decisions for himself, and the parents (with the best intentions) want to maintain control. Morrison cautions, “If kids get the idea that any time that they do something independently they will be punished, there’s no reason for them not to lie.”
What to do
• Let your child know that you recognize his lie and you don’t appreciate it. At the same time, remember that this is his (misguided) attempt to try something his way. “You could say something like ‘You may decide at the last minute not to come home and do your homework. It’s fine if you go to someone’s house. Just leave me a message.’ That’s a very positive message that says you respect your child’s growing autonomy, but safety is a concern,” says Morrison.
• As your preteen becomes a young teen, you will set fewer rules. “Whether parents like it or not, there is a lot of negotiation — when kids will do their homework, what time their curfew is. The more arbitrary and zero-tolerance parents are, the less negotiation that takes place, the more defiance there will be — and more lying,” says Morrison.
• Even if your child has lied about something serious (maybe he’s taken money from your purse to get cigarettes, and then covered it up), don’t flip out. He isn’t the only kid who’s done something stupid. But focus on the risky choice he’s making rather than the lie, suggests Morrison. Depending on the circumstances, perhaps you’ll ask him to pay back the money, or skip his allowance. “In this case, it’s not so much about the lie as the reason for the lie which is a concern. It’s a given that a kid will lie to cover up such a transgression.”
It can undoubtedly be upsetting to discover that your child has lied. You look years ahead and imagine him living a life of crime. You shouldn’t. “This isn’t going to grow into something monstrous,” says Arnall. “Kids have to find their way — and parents are there coaching the child through all kinds of situations.” As long as we’re open to what our kids tell us — good or bad — it’s fixable. And that’s no lie.