All young kids are bound to tell whopping big lies at some stage, but here are some ways to stop it from becoming a habit and to teach your child that honesty really is the best policy.
My eldest son came home from school the other day and announced, “Mum, I got a Deputy Principal’s award sticker today.” “Wow good for you,” I replied, just as his younger sibling who had started school about two weeks prior piped up with, “I got one too Mum, but gave it away to one of the other kids.” My elder son looked at me, waiting to see what I would say, as it was pretty obvious his brother was fibbing. I knew that if I replied with an indulgent “well done” to him as well, I would be taking the shine off what my elder son had achieved. But I also knew that the reason behind my younger son’s story was his need to try and keep up with his big brother. So how did I handle this parenting moment? Er, not that well actually – I didn’t say anything, and just doled out a congratulatory cuddle whilst giving my eldest a conspiratorial wink. But the incident did inspire me to do a little investigating …
There are all sorts of reasons why children lie, and when your child doesn’t tell the truth, it is easy to become upset about the actual lie whilst overlooking what could be behind it. In their formative years, children aren’t actually old enough to understand the difference between the truth and falsehood. They have no concept of the fact that thinking is a personal thing. However, by the time they reach 3- to 4-years of age, they are beginning to comprehend that people can’t read their thoughts. This newly acquired knowledge is often tested out by telling stories. This means it is important we teach our children the difference between fact and fantasy. A gentle way of approaching this is to compliment them on their lovely story, suggesting that “perhaps we could write that one down to keep.” Some children may lie because they are bored or feel they’re not getting enough attention. Watch for particular situations where your child lies and see if you can find a trigger.
As they progress to school-age, children are far more concerned with pleasing Mum and Dad than they are with doing or saying the right thing, and if they think they are likely to be in trouble, they will lie their way out of it. A good way of handling this is not to accuse your child of mistakes and learn not to ask your young child questions to which you already know the answers – in other words, don’t tempt them to lie. It’s also worth assessing the way you enforce discipline in your household – are your kids so scared of being punished for doing something wrong that they prefer to lie about it? They should feel safe enough to own up to their actions.
The old adage what’s good for the goose is good for the gander means leading by example and telling the truth yourself. Also ensure that your children are aware of your own beliefs with regards to honesty/dishonesty, and discuss various situations that they might encounter and what they could and should do. Talk about how you value honesty as a family and explain to your child that they must also be honest with you so that you can trust them.
Try and notice under what circumstances the lying occurs in order to help understand what could be making your child do it. Avoid labelling them a ‘liar’ as labels feed the very behaviour you are trying to change. Notice when your child tells the truth and praise them for it. Watch out for low self-esteem as this can be a contributing factor with children wanting to make themselves sound better in order to impress their friends or to simply fit in with a group. Young people tell lies for fear that if they are honest they will be stopped from doing something they really want to do. As our children grow older, they need more personal space, so, ask what you need to know in order to keep them safe, but try not to delve too deeply. Often they will share with you when they feel you will listen without recrimination.
So what about the little white lie? You know, the one where we say we like our friend’s hair even though it looks awful? It’s a fine line between being honest and being rude or hurtful, and it’s important to explain to children the difference between a malicious and hurtful lie versus one that is meant out of politeness. This is something that takes a long time and lots of help from us as parents. Think basic good manners. It is not okay to say, “Yuck I don’t like that,” when offered something to eat and this is an instance where the little white lie is appropriate!
Ages & Stages
- Telling the truth is something that children learn over the years and is not something they know instinctively from birth. It is quite normal for young children to point the finger at someone else like the big bad wolf.
- Make it a household rule that everyone (including adults) asks before taking or using something that belongs to another family member. This teaches children to be respectful of others’ possessions. It will also emphasise the value that stealing is wrong.
- Teach them the difference between reality and fantasy through discussions about books and television programmes.
5 to 8 years
- Reward honesty – be sure to offer them a lot of praise each and every time they do manage to be truthful.
- Where possible, let your child experience the natural consequences of their actions. For example, if they steal something, let them be the ones to return the goods and apologise to the shop owner.
- Teach them about the different options they have in terms of fulfilling their wants and doing so in socially respectful ways.
- Use reality-based statements when you expect something from your child. For example, “I expect/want you to …” / versus, “I wish you would …”.
9 to 12 years
- By the time they reach 9-years-old, most children have a clear understanding of the difference between the truth and fantasy.
- Take note as to when your child lies as it may help you pinpoint an underlying reason.
- Do not blame your child for lying unless you have determined for sure that they are responsible for the situation.
- Have any discussion involving dishonesty privately.
Michelle Vernal is a freelance writer who lives in Oxford with her husband and two sons.