Catching your child in a lie can be a troubling experience. Fear of moral weakness, anger at being manipulated or even hurt by a sense of betrayal, parents can react pretty strongly to these transgressions.
But it is important to remember both that it's a rare person who hasn't dabbled in dishonesty and that there's a big gap between telling a lie and being a pathological liar.
How we respond to our children's lying can make a difference in whether this is a stage or a profession. So before you get out that bar of soap or the tabasco sauce, it might help to understand the purpose and development of lying.
Before it becomes an engrained strategy for trying to control the world, lying starts out as an experiment. Here are some ways children experiment with lying:
1. Magical Thinking - Fanciful stories, imaginary lives and wishful thinking are the realm of the young child. Even up to age 6 or so children can believe that wanting something to be true makes it true - as in if I insist I am a ninja, I am. If I say I didn't hit my baby sister, I didn't. This is not the same as lying because there is a lack of awareness between truth and fiction.
What parents can do: At this stage parents do well to enjoy the creative stories and sidestep lying talk. Focus more on the behaviors that you do/don't want to see - You can't hit your brother than the 'you're lying' angle. Separately though, now is a good time to begin sharing your values about honesty and why it is important.
Highly recommended: Read children's books/watch shows with this lesson in it (Though Pinocchio has been known to leave a mark on some young children). As children get older, use those teachable moments from tv, movies or current events to discuss the concepts of lying and reinforce your values about being honest.
2. Anxiety/Stress Reaction - As children begin to recognize that their words can get them into or out of immediate trouble, any child, and particularly those who tend toward high anxiety or low stress tolerance, may begin reactively lying or offering sins of omission. (Yes - I brushed my teeth. No, I didn't eat the last cookie. I don't have homework. Or the more passive: I forgot or I didn't know.)
Of course this is a short-sighted gain and parents do well to encourage a child to more long-term smarts. But how we try to help will effect how easy it is for children to get there.
What parents should not do: One strategy that parents sometimes use is to instill such an fear of lying that the child will choose the lesser fear, telling the truth. And while there should definitely be consequences for lying, this strategy can go too far. Especially for the child who already struggles with anxiety and stress-management, this technique creates a pretty miserable existence either way.
What parents can do: Give consequences for lying but also help the child learn anxiety/stress management skills so they can make the honest choice easier.Also, talk to your child about why you value honesty and about the advantages of having long-term smarts versus immediate gain. Empathize with why it isn't always easy to tell the truth. And finally, notice any and all progress in the right direction.
If your child is prone to the quick, reactive lie to avoid stress, give them time to come clean on their own. Low key prompts of: Hmm...' Really? or Are you sure that's what happened? can help. And if that triggers more truthfulness, appreciate this out loud.
If your child tells you an uncomfortable truth - 'I got a 50 on my math test' don't immediately start yelling that it's because they didn't study or that now they are grounded. Try breathing first and then "I appreciate you being honest and telling me. We will have to deal with what to do about this of course but I am glad you told the truth." Then give them the consequences for screwing up but remember to give them positive consequences for telling the truth too.
3. Masterful Manipulation - My tag line is: You get good at what you practice, and that includes lying. When there are both high external rewards for and a lack of internal regulation and moral conscience against lying, a person can move beyond reactive deceit to lying as a way of life.
What parents can do: Use a combination of setting an example (watch your white lies and double standards!), teaching the value of honesty, and firm consequences to encourage children to make better long-term choices.
Natural consequences: One of the natural consequences of lying is that the next time they tell you something you - as a smart person - may not trust the source, that is natural. You will treat someone you trust differently than someone you don't trust. This may include new rules about what they can and can't do and tighter controls like: I need you to show me your homework until I can begin to trust you again. However you must also show them how to re-earn your trust and don't forget to notice if their honesty is beginning to rebuild it.
Logical consequences: Calm consequences, rather than just weepy or angry lectures can be your best strategy to strengthen the cause-effect connection of lying, and encourage future truth telling. Consider consequences that relate to the infraction - extra tooth-brushing, additional chores or homework, saying/writing a genuine apology to that baby sister you hit, etc. I have also had my kids write about the 'why' of lying. (What they think was happening that made them do that. What they specifically plan to do differently in the future.)
Here's the good news: Making honesty an important family value while believing that your children will get there is the best combination. When parents practice honesty especially when it is hard; when they offer understanding for why kids lie, consequencing for both honesty and dishonesty, help with their child's anxiety over telling the truth; and believe that their children will become better at practicing the truth, they almost assuredly will. Trust me!
Annie Zirkel, MA LPC, is a Parenting Consultant, speaker and author of You'll Thank Me Later - A Guide to Raising Grateful Children (& Why That Matters). You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org