Children lie for the same reasons adults lie – to avoid negative consequences or to gain advantage. Lying and dishonesty are fairly complicated concepts children only begin to understand around the age of four or five. At a younger age, it helps to think about such behavior as “misrepresenting.” Once complex language has begun to develop, when your toddler is about three years old, it becomes possible for her to misrepresent or distort what has happened. By then she can figure out you are upset with her because you think she is doing something she should not do. You are simultaneously amused and frustrated the first time you catch your toddler with her hand in the candy dish, about to pick up the second piece, the first piece still in her mouth, shaking her head, assuring you she has not been in the candy.
In reality, your children get away with most of their unacceptable behavior. Either you do not know about it, or do not take the time to negatively respond to it. Fortunately, it is unnecessary children always be caught. Appropriately respond negatively to the behavior most of the times you observe it.
If discipline is excessive or abusive, children do almost anything, including lying, to avoid parental wrath. If your child is lying to you with regularity, it may be you have been somewhat abusive with him when he misbehaves. Your child may be afraid of you. At the other extreme, he may continue to lie if you always accept what he says, never question his explanations, and act as if you believe him even when you do not. He likely also continues to lie if your disapproval is too mild.
By the time your child is five or six, truthfulness should have become a moral value. Children gradually come to be truthful even when doing so may get them into trouble. They gradually refrain from lying even though the risk of getting caught is extremely low. You may ask a ten-year-old some evening if he brushed his teeth before bed the night before. You know and he knows there is no way you can tell whether he is telling the truth. He knows you will be annoyed if he tells you he did not brush his teeth. Nonetheless, he says, “No, I forgot.” Why does he tell the truth when, at no risk, it seems to his advantage to lie to you? To understand this, look at how lying becomes controlled by conscience.
If your toddler finds misrepresenting what has happened helps her avoid a negative reaction from you, she likely tries it again. As you become aware she is misrepresenting things, you react with annoyance and disapproval. Your child comes to understand you expect her to accurately tell you what is going on. This thinking part is combined with your negative emotions and her unpleasant emotions, to become a part of your child’s emotional-thinking self.
Gradually, then, your child learns you have a special thing about telling what really happens and not distorting things. In fact, she finds you get even more upset when she misrepresents things and you find out about it than you would have gotten had she simply told you how things were to begin with. She picks up on your reaction through your behavior and because you have told her so.
As she learns to understand the notion of lying, she also develops feelings about lying. These feelings are self-disciplining. Finally, you do not have to negatively discipline at all. It is enough for your child to know you know she is lying or may find out. Although the experience is milder, she feels chastised as if you had actually disciplined her. This self-discipline is called a guilty conscience. Eventually, with continuing effort both on your part and on your child’s part, conscience comes to be a significant influence on much of your child’s life, including lying.
Let your children know being honest is, by itself, very desirable, as you let your child know you see him as honest and truthful. This self-image stands as a strong deterrent to dishonesty.
Will there come a day when your child never lies again? Probably not. He will on some occasions lie before thinking about it. At other times, the perceived risk in telling the truth is so high your child may choose to lie. By the age of nine or ten, it should be quite sufficient to let him know you know. This makes him feel a little guilty, and thus reduces the likelihood of his lying in the future.
Do not tell your child you are going to believe her unless you are really going to do so.
Do not tell your child you believe her unless you really do.
It is reasonable to say to your child, “You have lied to me so much I don’t know whether to believe you or not.” Especially with an adolescent, it is also reasonable to check up on her if you think she has lied to you. If you find your child (especially your grade schooler or preschooler) gets very upset when confronted about her behavior or the possibility she is lying, your first suspicion should be your child has become afraid of you. Tone down discipline and negative reactions; give more affection and positive reactions and encouragement. It may be time to stop saying, “I am absolutely not going to put up with your lying to me one more time” and to start saying, “It will sure be nice when you and I get to where you feel like you can tell me the truth and don’t have to lie to me anymore.”
Your children are watching you and are becoming more like you every day. You can set a good example and yet be quite ineffective if you do not deal with your child and his behavior in a responsible way. It is equally true, though, you can deal with your child and his behavior in a reasonable and appropriate way, yet if you do not set a good example, your good parenting will be lost.
What does it mean to be a good role model? How do you do it? For the most part, you live those values, attitudes, and beliefs you want to see in your children. If you want your children to be trustworthy and to refrain from stealing, they must see you as trustworthy. Now, what is the effect on your child when you borrow something from a neighbor and do not return it? It is a good exercise to go through your house and make a list of everything you have which does not legitimately belong to you. Be sure to include things you have brought home from work, have borrowed from friends and family members, things which really belong to your children but have been appropriated by you, and everything else which you are keeping or using but to which you do not have a clear right. It is an unusual household not containing a few such objects. Do you always make an effort to correct the situation when you have been given too much change, when you have been charged less than you should have been charged, when you have been given more than you have paid for, or when you receive things you have not ordered?
Do you always ask your children’s permission before using things belonging to them, before getting into their things, before using their money to pay the paper girl, before eating their Halloween candy, before giving away toys or clothes they have outgrown, or before giving one child permission to use clothing or school supplies of another child? If you do not get your children’s permission before doing these things, you are stealing. It is very easy to use parental power and authority to steal from children, but it also sets a very bad example.
You want your children to be truthful. Are you honest, even in those situations where truthfulness brings negative consequences? You are driving a long distance and one of your children asks how soon you are going to stop to eat. You say, “Just settle down. We are going to stop in just a little bit.” Two hours later you are still driving. Did you lie to your child? Yes, you surely did. A friend stops you and asks you if you will be at the next club meeting. “Yes, I plan to be there.” When it comes time for the meeting, you are too tired, or would rather go someplace else, or perhaps you never really intended to go. The list of transgressions could go on and on. It may be a good exercise to keep a record for one week, giving yourself one point every time you lie, do not do what you say you will do, misrepresent what has happened, or do anything dishonest. Do not be surprised if your score is higher than you thought it would be.
You want your children to be considerate of other people. One way to achieve this is to talk with your children and let them know you disapprove when they make fun of other children. Let them know you do not approve of teasing children with physical or mental handicaps, who have speech defects or accents different from yours, who are economically better off or less well off than you, whose skin color is different than yours, who have beliefs or customs different from yours. You teach the Golden Rule, but your high principles falter a little when you gossip, or do not try to understand another person’s thinking or feelings, when you stereotype people, or in any way act as if your way of life is the only right way. You become angry with your children or make fun of them when they are awkward or have difficulty doing something. You are nice to people when they are around but talk negatively about them when they are not. You disapprove of your children’s friends and associates without making any effort to get to know them. You become very self-righteous when other people have financial difficulties, family problems, get fired, or have other problems. your children gradually will come to deal with other people in the same way you do.