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The first time a parent catches their child lying is enough to make their heart sink. It doesn’t matter if it’s a broken plate on the floor or the candy they so obviously just snuck in and ate; Most mothers and fathers want their children to be raised with integrity. And when children are dishonest, it is easy to feel that you have failed to instill an essential core value in your child.
But here’s the good news: lying is part of a child’s normal development and is common even among young children. It is the way parents react to it that teaches the importance of honesty and how to apply it later in life. We’re going to share some ways in which to deal with lying when it happens and what to do when dishonesty becomes a real problem.
Why do children lie?
Young children are unaware of the moral implications of lying. That’s because it’s often difficult for them to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary when they’re young – and they want to please you.
“The line between fantasy and reality is a bit darker for [children] than it could be [adults]”Says Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and mother of three children.
She adds that children will lie whenever they think the truth will get them into trouble. They see lies as a way to stay close to their parents and ensure their biological survival and psychological safety, which are necessary for a child to grow and thrive.
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“From an evolutionary point of view, our children have to feel safe with us, that is, they have to feel that we have them with us and love them,” she says. “When you feel ashamed and alone telling the truth, you feel compelled to lie in order to feel good about yourself in the moment.”
What to do if your child is lying
As mentioned above, it is difficult for young children to distinguish between right and wrong, and punishing them for their actions out of fear could end up leaving them even more on the street. For example, if a child tears down another child’s block tower and insists they didn’t, Kennedy recommends that instead of trying to catch them lying or blaming them dishonestly, try to listen to them in order to restore confidence:
“Tell them, ‘Oh, you didn’t put it down. If someone did, and I know it’s not you, then something must have happened that caused that kid to collapse his siblings’ tower. I wonder what this kid must have been feeling. If you find out who that kid is, could you tell them I won’t be upset? There will be no punishment. I just want to know what’s going on so we can avoid something like this happening again. ‘”
Difficult emotions are likely to be hidden behind a child’s undesirable behavior. If a child believes that their parents are interested in how they feel inside, then they are more likely to be telling the truth. Kennedy uses the example of an older sibling beating and lying about his younger brother. By sending her to her room instead of understanding why the incident happened, they believe that the parents only care about what is outwardly going on and do not see them as a good child. Parents should not condone lying or beating but try to find out why they flogged.
In some cases, the child may lie about what happened between them and their siblings to get attention. In such cases, they play the prey to get what they need.
“This child is less likely to lie because they have learned that their parents see them as a good child, and they are willing to hear the more complex feelings behind that behavior,” says Kennedy.
Then there is this moment that every parent experiences: one parent tells a child that they cannot do something, then the child tells the other parent that they can, for example when a child tells dad that mom said that they could play on the iPad when mom actually told them no. Kennedy says this isn’t about manipulating parents, it’s about the child trying to regulate their disappointment with less screen time.
“Lying is done to avoid the stress of wanting and not having,” she explains. “Instead of getting upset that they are trying to deceive you, discuss with them that they understand that it must be difficult for them to hear no and that they must have been very disappointed.”
What if lying goes too far?
If this approach of trying to understand why a child is lying doesn’t contain their dishonesty, it is time to let them know that it will affect their actions. Per Dr. Matthew Rouse, psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, the punishment doesn’t have to be excessive, but it should address both the lie and what they lied about. For example, if a teen claims they did their homework and didn’t do it, they should be punished for their dishonesty and asked to do their job.
But Rouse also points out that children should know that telling the truth reduces punishment, such as when a teen lies about going to a party but later calls a guardian for a ride home because they’re drunk. There is a fine line to walk when a child lied where they were but then did the right thing by not driving drunk. Parents can tell their children that because of their ultimate honesty, their punishment will be lessened.
How to make honesty a value
Columnist Dr. Carol Brady said Child Mind Institute that parents should tell a child that perfection is not an expectation. Brady suggests a “truth check” where a parent gives him a few minutes after he lied to consider his answer.
Parents could also say something like, “I’m going to ask you a question, and maybe you’ll tell me something I don’t really want to hear. But remember, your behavior is not what you are. I love you no matter what, and sometimes people make mistakes. I want you to think about giving me an honest answer. ”
Brady doesn’t recommend this method for a chronic liar, but it could go a long way in helping you realize the importance of truth and integrity.