Many parents get very upset when we catch our children lying, stealing or cheating. In this podcast I want to go over why kids might lie, what strategies we might use to address the lying and how age might influence our reactions. Lastly, I’ll talk about how to repair trust which has been broken and what consequences might be appropriate.
These situations are stressful for every parent and throw us into a vast array of emotions ranging from anger to disappointment and hopelessness depending on the age of the child and the frequency of the offenses. This whole issue attacks our basic tenet of trust. When a child lies, they break our trust. When our kids are little it’s fairly easy to maneuver them in the right direction. As they age, the breaking of trust becomes more and more difficult to repair.
When we act very authoritarian and harshly punish such behavior, it often has the opposite affect and winds up increasing the bad behavior.
Why does lying bug us?
Honesty is critical to healthy relationships, having integrity and resolving problems.
Dishonesty can lead to heaps of trouble in the long run which nobody wants for their kids.
Why do kids lie? What is it about lying that comes so easily into our kids’ lives? In researching for this topic, I found that there seem to be categories for lying that can help us to put a child’s behavior into a better perspective.
- Test out a new behavior – This is when they just want to see your reaction. What will mom do when they steal the candy from the pantry? I think of this for little kids mostly who are new to lying and its repercussions. But could be a teen who is trying to test the boundaries in different ways to see if they get caught or not. Taking a beer from the fridge or talking online with a stranger.
- Enhance self-esteem and gain approval – I call this the Bragging Syndrome where an insecure kid tries to puff themselves up to impress others. They tell their friends they’re the best at something or own something that others might want. They want to fit in so they inflate themselves in ways they think will help them but often times it backfires and their self-esteem takes even more hits.
- For personal gain – This might be cheating on a test or taking money from someone’s wallet. It could be shoplifting for items you can’t or aren’t allowed to have. Maybe it’s setting up accounts on Instagram and Snap Chat that aren’t allowed. You know what the most common lie I hear from parents for this category is these days? Sneaking computer time and lying about it.
- To avoid punishment – let’s say your kid broke something, or colored a wall with markers, maybe pushed their annoying little sibling over. They are afraid you’ll punish them so when we ask: “Who did this?” you get a: “Not me!” Don’t be surprised.
When I was about 9 or 10 I broke my mom’s hair dryer but I’m from such a big family that when all of us said: “Not me!” I was never found out. I had no idea what the punishment would have been, I just knew I didn’t want it and isn’t it amazing that 50 years later I still remember the incident. It was an accident, but it turned into something much more.
- To avoid doing something – When I asked parents in my Parenting Decoded FB group about lying examples I have to say, this is probably the most common. Kids lie about brushing their teeth, washing their hands, finishing their homework, putting away their clothes, cleaning their room, turning in their homework, logging off the computer, taking out the trash. They’d just rather not do any of those things, so they lie about it and say they did.
- Get the focus off themselves – Sometimes if a kid is depressed or not doing well, they will say things that we parents want to hear.
- Are you feeling ok today?
- Did you take your medicine?
- Did you finish your homework?
- Did you get enough sleep?
- How are you doing with your friends at school?
- Speak before they think – with some kids who have ADHD they sometimes just blurt things out without a filter and without actually thinking about it and it comes out sounding like a lie. If they took a few cycles to think, it would come out differently, but sometimes they don’t those cycles.
- Spare people’s feelings with white lies – This is a tough one since it requires taking into account other people’s feelings. “I really like your new outfit”, “You’re really good at drawing.” “I love my present from you.”
Ok, now that we have a reference guide for different types of lies,
What do we do about them?
Well, in a blog from Child-Psych.org they elaborate on three main goals for parents when dealing with lying:
First, getting to the truth in a positive way, then figuring out how to make amends and, lastly, how to learn from the mistake of lying.
- Know the truth and have kids share it – it’s really important that there is trust in the household. If kids have a problem they are afraid to share about, they will be tempted to lie especially if they think there might be a harsh punishment coming. Not having harsh punishments for telling the truth while they are young will help build trust so that as they get older, they’re more likely to share and not lie. You want to try setting up rewards for honesty which in the case of lying is that there will be less of a consequence for telling the truth than hiding it.
In the example of kids not washing their hands when they say they did and you know they didn’t, instead of putting them on the spot and calling them a liar, you can gently say something like, “Hmmm… it seems like I see some dirt still on your hands. Can you please re-wash them for me?” Or they didn’t do their homework and you can see their unfinished work on the table, “Wow, this is so strange, is this the homework that was supposed to be turned in? Did you want to tell me about it? Is there something you need help with? I won’t be mad if you tell me since in our family telling the truth is really an important value.”
I’d recommend having a Family Meeting occasionally to talk about your family values and how honesty is promoted and protected. You might even set up a family honor code and post it so everyone can be reminded of it. The really important thing is that it’s discussed and debated by everyone in the family, not just an edict coming down from mom and dad.
- Kids can make amends – if the child’s behavior affects someone or something then you need to encourage making amends. If they’ve broken a window and lied about it, paying for a new window would be appropriate. If they lied and it impacted someone like they hit their sister or ate all the cupcake toppings that were to be used for an upcoming party, they have to repair the damage. I’m a firm believer than forcing a kid to say “Sorry” in a resentful, under the breath tone isn’t helpful at all. It only creates embarrassment and resentment. If sister was hurt, maybe doing some chores for her or letting her play with some of your toys might help repair ill-will created when the child hurt their sibling. We want to teach our kids that apologies from the heart are effective. It could be writing a letter, drawing a picture or baking cookies instead of a forced “I’m sorry.”
- Kids learn from mistakes – let kids know that we all make mistakes. Lying is just a mistake that we get to help figure out how not to do in the future. We need to talk to them about how honesty will get us further in life than lying and cheating. Brainstorm with them how to recover from making bad choices when they lie or cheat. If they get caught cheating on an exam or copying someone else’s work, what can they learn? Keep calm. Find out what’s really going on instead of heading right into punishing. Kids lie when they feel cornered, help them get out of the corner by spending time with empathy and love to figure out the root cause.
Age based Ideas on Dealing with Lying
Now that we talked about the three goals, I want to go over how we might apply them at different ages. Parents.com wrote a useful age-based guide that I’ll go over briefly here and reference in my podcast notes.
Toddlers and Preschoolers (Ages 2-4)
Lots of little kids can’t even quite tell truth from lying so these years are critical for adults to set the stage that kids don’t need to rely on lying to solve problems. Kids are going to experiment so you gently and diplomatically send a response back instead of “Did you eat the cookie?” which leads to an immediate tantrum or meltdown, try something like “Did somebody eat a cookie? Those mustn’t be crumbs on your chin.” No need to have consequences but I might pull out some books to read at bedtime that talk about lying. Once they hit about 4, they are more aware of the concept and might introduce a whopper or two. One of my parents used a wonderful technique when her son lied by saying they were going for ice cream when they for sure weren’t. After he announced it this wise mom said, “I know you wish that were true. I love ice cream too.” Then she just kept moving on. It’s common at this age that wishful thinking becomes statements that appear to be lies. It’s great to treat them as wishful thinking in a kind and generous way.
School Age (ages 5-8)
At this stage they tend to tell more lies to test what they can get away with. For example, One 5-year-old was testing her new abilities so much that she was proudly telling her little brother she was a better liar than he was. Too funny. Mom and dad will have some fun dealing with that. At this stage though most lies are easy to detect – they didn’t brush their teeth, didn’t do their reading, didn’t check over their spelling, watched more TV than allowed. Talk openly and continue to read stories together. Don’t forget to praise them when they are honest. Be careful at this stage that you’re modeling honesty yourself. If you tell kids to pretend they are younger than they are to get a discount meal at a restaurant or a ticket at a theme park, you need to consider what message that is sending to your child’s growing sense of right and wrong? I know lots of families do this, but at what cost?
I always consider these foundational years for cementing your relationship before teen mindset and independence sets in. Kids at this stage are pretty savvy and have already a strong sense of right and wrong. When they lie, they may have strong feelings of guilt. Being available for conversations about honesty is super helpful. Talk about how honesty impacts our lives. When they mess up, brainstorm about it. Have some special time with that child for a gentle discussion. At this age you talk about things like “little while lies” and how to use them if they’re needed to protect people’s feelings. Maybe brainstorm if there are ways to be thoughtful without using white lies to get by.
I know lots of parents at this stage are hit by lies relating to computer use. “Yes, I’m just studying with my friends.” While you can see they have a YouTube window open. Or, “I need to use my computer for a project this evening.” And you find out they’re on Minecraft instead and they’ve hidden it from you. Or, in more serious offenses, they’ve wandered all over the internet chatting with strangers and creating social media accounts that you can’t even begin to figure out where and how many there are.
One thing I can say is for you to take a deep breath. Trust is earned and you have to rollback things to allow your kids to regain your trust. In the case of computer issues it might be that you move their electronics into a public place. This online learning that we’re in right now has really messed everything up since we really want all electronics in public places anyway but right now it’s almost impossible to do that. One mom was thinking about removing YouTube from the school laptop, but her son would miss out on studies. Maybe it’s that they put YouTube only on the computer in the Family Room until they come up with a better way to know they can trust him to make better choices.
In this older stage we need to do that work to listen and modify. If there’s a lot of lying at this stage it’s a call for help. Your child doesn’t feel safe telling you things and you need to get the door open. Have you been too punitive in the past? Did you blow up when there’s a problem with lying or cheating? If you’re behavior makes them want to take a step back from you, that’s the wrong direction. Figure out ways they can trust you won’t blow up if they have something you’re not going to like hearing. For some this is setting aside special time to brainstorm but for others you might need to involve a counselor to help negotiate things.
How do you encourage honesty?
- Let them know truth is easier and reduces consequences especially when planning ahead.
- Say your kid has been drinking at a party. They could lie about it but you want them to call to be picked up so you have to strike a balance and have an open dialogue ahead of time, so no lying is needed.
- If they don’t turn in an assignment, find out why. Was it too hard? Did they have too much homework? Were they bored with the work? Talk about what could be done about it.
- If they cheated and copied someone’s test or paper and got caught. Talk to them about what was up with that. Are they feeling too much pressure to perform? Do they need assistance to catch up? Again, are they overloaded? Bored? Tired? Bullied? Try to get to the bottom of the why instead of just punishing the deed. Every time at this stage you’re able to get to the heart of what’s really going on its another avenue you’ve set up in being able to communicate with your teen.
- Let kids know we don’t expect perfection - Parents could say, “I’m going to ask you a question and maybe you’re going to tell me something I don’t really want to hear. But remember, your behavior is not who you are. I love you know matter what, and sometimes people make mistakes. So, I want you to think about giving me an honest answer.” Giving kids a chance to reflect on this may lead to them telling the truth.
- Don’t label your kid a liar, it’s the behavior, not the kid. Don’t set up your child for feeling bad about themselves that we wind up setting up a pattern of lying, as if we expect them to lie since they’ve been labeled a liar.
- Don’t corner your child – if you already know they lied and put them on the spot. If you know they didn’t do their homework just say it. “I know you didn’t do it. Let’s talk about why that’s not a good idea and what to do about it.”
Ideas for Repairing Trust
For those of you who know Love and Logic techniques one thing to integrate into the repair of trust can be Energy Drain. It really is an Energy Drain when you’re lied to. You can use this with empathy and love to allow them to fill back up your energy by doing acts of service or chores around the house. Maybe they’ll clean out the garage or scrub those garbage cans that go to the street. One of my boys cleaned the gutters when he broke our trust. He was a great kid and just happened to make a poor choice. He was glad to do that chore to fill back up our energy that he had drained and get himself right with us again. If you want more examples take a listen Episode 10 on Consequences.
I want to finish up telling you a story about Cheese Pizza. It’s from Natasha at Reading Is Better Than Chocolate. She was raised in an authoritarian household. They were to do as they were told, no questions, no arguments. Mistakes were punished harshly and lies were included in that. Her response? She just weighed up the odds of getting caught and lied at every turn. Yikes. Now that she’s a mom she needed to come up with a vastly better plan especially since she had made lots of poor choices by the time she was an early adult.
Her idea as a mom was to cultivate a program of trust and love from the get-go. She and her son developed a code word that they agreed upon ahead of time. Whenever her son said the code word it would create a magic spell where mom would have to listen calmly and NOT lose it. They had fun choosing a word together. They settled on CHEESE PIZZA. Well, they posted that word in their kitchen on the fridge so everyone could see it with some simple rules that when the word was said that mom would take a deep breath, count to five and then not lose it. In only 3 days her son came home from school and said CHEESE PIZZA! Mom took her breath, counted to five and they sat down. He had torn his new trousers at school. He was able to tell his mom that he was happily playing on the playground when it happened. She gave him a squeeze and thanked him for being truthful.
She’s hoping that setting this up when he’s young they’ll have lots of practice so if the issues get bigger than holes in knees they’ll have something to use to help them through. This story doesn’t say to let your kids get away with not helping to pay for new pants, which I think you should brainstorm how that happens, but it’s about getting to the heart of your child so that they feel you’re on their side and they’re safe to tell you even hard things. Life will get hard and how we respond is going to impact how and when our kids are willing to come to us. Make your own plans for CHEESE PIZZA in your house.
Natasha has a wonderful list of books in her article that you can use to talk to your kids about lying and I’ll put the link in my podcast along with another article about books and honesty from ChildrensLitLove.com. Books can be so helpful as jumping off points for discussions with our kids especially when they’re younger. One book parents of teens and tweens can certainly learn from is “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk”. Communication is key to maintaining a loving relationship that will last a lifetime!
I hope these ideas on how to handle lies and lying in your house are helpful. Please share this with other families. If you’d like a transcript of this or any of my podcasts, they are always attached to my episode notes and on my website. Feel free to email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or join my Facebook Group for more chatter on parenting topics.
- How to Handle Your Child’s Dishonesty by Child-Psych.org
- Why Kids Lie from ChildMind.org by ChildMind.org
- Cheese Pizza Idea from Natasha at ReadingIsBetterThanChocolate.com
- Lying Guide By Age from Parents.com
- Honor Code Ideas by ReadBrightly.com
- Favorite Picture Books on Honesty from ChildrensLitLove.com
- How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish