Every kid tells a whopper now and then. Here’s how to get to the truth.
By Janine DeFao
When my 3-year-old recently told me a friend had hit her at preschool, I discreetly asked her teacher about it, mentioning that I didn’t know whether to believe my daughter because she had taken to fibbing lately.
“Oh, we don’t call it fibbing at this age!” her lovely teacher responded. “It’s just imagination.”
Now, I’m pretty sure when my daughter tells constant stories about her make-believe friend, Heezy, that it’s her imagination at work. But when she tells me that she’s brushed her teeth, when I’ve been standing in the bathroom watching her not do it, isn’t that lying?
Absolutely, says Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has done groundbreaking research on lying for more than 30 years. His work reading “micro” facial expressions earned him a spot on TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2009 and is the basis for the Fox television show Lie to Me. Even very young children lie, Ekman says, and they do it for many of the same reasons adults do.
Why Do Kids Lie?
• To avoid punishment and parental anger
“When a 3-year-old says, ‘I didn’t knock the vase off the table,’ they know they did and are afraid of your anger and punishment,” says Ekman, author of Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness. Ekman wrote the book after catching his 14-year-old son lying about throwing a party.
In fact, lying to avoid punishment is the main reason kids lie, and it’s why punishing children or threatening to punish them for lying can backfire.
“Kids who live in societies where punishment is extreme or severe just get better at lying,” says journalist and author Po Bronson, whose new book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, contains a chapter subtitled “Why most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.”
• To get something they want or get out of something they don’t want
Recently, Terri Wickwire’s 13-year-old daughter got permission to walk to a movie after school. But she wasn’t there when her mom arrived to pick her up and was unreachable until she called home at 8 p.m., with her mom frantically calling friends’ cell phones in the meantime. The daughter had gone to a friend’s house instead.
Then she lied about hurting her back to get out of her gym class.
Kari Becker’s kindergartener, Brady, once told his teacher that he went to Antarctica over the summer and touched a polar bear when its back was turned. It’s not unusual for Brady to tell such fantastic stories, she says, adding that, “he doesn’t do it enough that I would worry. I can tell he knows he’s being funny.”
Children don’t just lie to protect themselves from punishment. They’ll do it for friends or siblings, too. Sometimes, the way to protect a friend is to lie to them to spare their feelings. Ekman once overheard his teen daughter tell a friend she was going out of town rather than admit she was attending a party to which the friend wasn’t invited.
• For the thrill of it
You don’t think you’re a liar, but have you told a telemarketer you’re in the middle of dinner when you’re not? Or your Aunt Ginny that you love her Christmas gift, only to complain about it later on?
Your kids are listening, and those seemingly harmless white lies may be teaching them that lying is OK.
7 Strategies for Parents
1. Avoid white lies.
You may be surprised by how difficult it is to model truth-telling by curbing your own white lies, whether you tell them for convenience, to spare feelings or to avoid confrontation.
“A lot of us, and not just kids, don’t know how to get out of awkward social situations without lying,” says Ekman. But “you’ve got to figure out a way to be braver and be truthful without hurting someone’s feelings.”
So don’t tell your kids to pretend they love a gift they really don’t like. A simple thank-you will suffice.
2. Curb your anger.
If a child is repeatedly lying about a wrongdoing (and it’s not the first time he’s lied), try offering “immunity” for the underlying offense. Bronson says that’s often the quickest way to the truth. Stress that you’ll be happy with the fact that your child told the truth, not angry at the wrongdoing.
Kids’ lies can really anger parents – even more than the initial wrongdoing. “We try to say, ‘You need to be honest with us. We’re going to be OK with it,’” says Becker. But she admits it’s not always easy. “You become more mad because of the lie than because of what they did.”
Keep your anger in check or wait until you calm down before addressing the lies.
3. Make the punishment fit the crime.
Both Ekman and Bronson stress that you use an incident involving lying to illustrate the importance of telling the truth.
“If you suspect or catch your child in a lie, the most important thing you can teach them is what the costs of that lie are and other ways to achieve their goal,” Ekman says.
When his son threw a party when his parents weren’t home, and then was outed by the neighbors, Ekman told the teen he’d lost his parents’ trust. In addition to grounding the 14-year-old, Ekman started hiring a 16-year-old to “babysit” him every time his parents went out.
“It was very embarrassing to him,” Ekman says. “It’s a punishment, but there’s a lesson.”
4. Don’t lay a trap.
Parents often unwittingly encourage their children to lie by asking questions to which we already know the answers.
Don’t ask a toddler, “Who drew on this wall?” or a teenager who has broken curfew, “So what time did you get in last night?”
While we do this to try to teach kids about lying – by catching them in a lie – Bronson says it’s better to not tempt them to lie. Tell your toddler that drawing on the wall is against the rules or ask your night-owl teenager: “Why did you get in so late?”
You can decide whether consequences are needed or figure out if there are ways to avoid the situation in the future. (Keep the markers out of reach if you’re not present, or ask your teen to call so you won’t worry.)
5. Be careful about forbidding tattling.
From the time they start school, and sooner if they have siblings, we tell kids not to tattle-tale. But the message, effectively, can be “Don’t tell us the truth. Be loyal to your brother, or your friend, but not to us.”
And then when children get older and start to lie, or simply not tell us the truth, about what their friends are doing, we wonder why, Ekman and Bronson say.
That’s not to say that you need to listen to your kids rat each other out for every little infraction. But don’t issue blanket “don’t tattle” rules. Be specific. Tell them to try to work it out first or to only tell an adult if someone is hurt or about to get hurt.
6. Explain why the truth is important.
The bottom line is that children need to understand why lying is bad, something they can comprehend at different levels at different ages. Young children may have a hard time understanding the concept of trust but they do understand fairness. Explain, for example, that you can’t play Chutes and Ladders if one player is lying and that people don’t want to play with a liar, Ekman suggests.
By age 8 or 10, you can begin to talk to children about issues of trust and reputation.
“By the time they get to be 11 or 12, you can really get into the issue of trust and how relationships end. Even if people want to trust a liar, they can’t do it if they have been betrayed,” he says.
Because all children are bound to lie at some point, it’s hard to know when to be concerned about it. If by age 10 or 15, you, your school or someone else has noticed that your child is lying consistently, you may need help.
“It’s a warning sign. You need to talk to someone and figure out what’s going on, whether there’s some other trouble,” Ekman says.
7. Err on the side of believing your child.
“Everybody breaks rules, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately,” says Ekman. “Your kid will, at some point, succeed in misleading you.
“The thing to worry about more is if your kid may be telling you the truth, and you don’t believe them,” he adds. “It’s much more damaging to the child, and to the relationship, to mistrust a child who is telling the truth.”
Janine DeFao is an associate editor with Dominion Parenting Media.