Fantastic Fibs

All children lie. The trick, as a parent, is to teach them why honesty is a good thing.

Why All Kids Lie

Shortly after my daughter, Sarah, then 4, returned from a playdate with her friend Jessica, the phone rang. Jessica's very irate mother was calling to tell me that while she thought the girls were quietly playing upstairs with their Barbies, they were, in fact, drawing on the wall with lipstick. I apologized, hung up, then reminded my daughter about the "paper is for drawing" rule. At the end of my speech, she looked me straight in the eye and said sweetly, "But, Mommy, we didn't draw on Jessica's wall," then ran off to play with her toy kitchen.

I was stunned -- not so much because Sarah had indulged her inner Picasso but because she had so blatantly lied about it. It turns out I shouldn't have been. "All kids lie occasionally," says clinical psychologist Richard Gallagher, PhD, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center. "In fact, it's a normal part of their development." This doesn't mean, however, that you should ignore the behavior. "Parents must teach honesty," says Joseph Di Prisco, PhD, coauthor of Right from Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child. "When you catch your child in a lie, look at it as an opportunity to talk about why it's important to be truthful."

To do that, it helps to understand why kids lie, and how those reasons change as they get older. Our guide gives you the best strategies to handle deception at every stage and smart ways to teach your child to value honesty.

Preschoolers: Big-Time Whoppers

Typical lies: "A monster spilled my milk." "I can do 100 cartwheels in a row!"

What they're thinking: "Preschoolers are too young to understand exactly what a lie is," says Dr. Gallagher. "They're not purposely distorting the truth. They love to exaggerate and make up tall tales, but these stories are expressions of their rich imagination, not lies." Sometimes, 3- and 4-year-olds have a difficult time distinguishing between wishful thinking and reality.

"Developmentally, they aren't mature enough to realize that something isn't true just because they want it to be," says Dr. Gallagher. That's why your preschooler can sit with an empty glass in her hand, milk trickling onto her lap, and tell you that a monster spilled it. What she really means is that she wishes she hadn't been the one to spill the milk because she can see that you're angry. In her mind, since she really didn't mean to do it, she didn't. In addition, with their short attention spans, preschoolers quickly forget what they did earlier (which may explain my daughter's "amnesia" about the lipstick drawings).

Truth tactics: First, don't overreact. "Never call a child a liar at any age," says Jane Kostelc, a child-development specialist with Parents as Teachers National Center, a St. Louis-based parent-education organization. If you act angry, you'll only put her on the defensive and make it more likely that she'll continue to lie to avoid blame. Instead, focus on what happened. Say calmly, "I see the milk spilled," then suggest a way to fix the problem -- "Let's go get some paper towels and clean this up together."

If your child is spinning a wild tale, challenge her in a playful way, suggests behavioral scientist Wendy Gamble, PhD, associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. You might ask, "Is this a real or a pretend story?" Most likely, she'll admit she's made it up and the two of you can laugh about it together.

5 to 7 Years: Cover-Up Tactics

Typical lies: "I finished my math sheet." "He hit me first."

What they're thinking: Kids in their early school years most often lie to escape responsibility or punishment. But they may also lie to get what they want (a later bedtime or permission to watch a must-see TV show), or because they're afraid of letting you down, says Dr. Di Prisco. If your son thinks that you'll be upset that he didn't learn his spelling words, he might lie about how he did on the quiz that day. And as friends become more important, a child who feels left out may fib to enhance his reputation -- "My Mom's going to be a judge on American Idol next year."

Truth tactics: Try to figure out your child's motivation for lying. Think about how you respond to his slipups. Are your expectations too high or is your discipline style too harsh? He may feel anxious and lie to avoid blame and punishment. Let him know that you understand he feels scared/embarrassed/ashamed when he's done something wrong. Then tell him that everyone (even you!) makes mistakes and that you still love him, no matter what he's done. But then you must also explain that you prefer that he tell you the truth, even if it's unpleasant. If your kid comes home with a toy you've never seen and you know he swiped it during a playdate, don't force him to confess. Instead, make a neutral comment like, "I see that you've brought home Billy's mitt," and talk about how it's not nice to take things without permission. Then focus on a solution: He can call Billy, apologize, and arrange to return it.

"Think of yourself as a teacher, not a police officer," says Kostelc. Don't enforce a punishment that far exceeds the misdeed. If he lied about a routine matter like turning off the TV when he didn't, a disapproving look plus a reminder that you expect him to tell the truth gets your message across.

When lying involves a safety issue, like not wearing a bike helmet or hitting his younger brother, handle the situation as you would any discipline issue. Talk about why his behavior was wrong, then impose two appropriate consequences -- one for what he did and one for lying about it.

8 and Up: Self-Serving Lies

Typical lies: "I don't have any homework tonight." "My dad's taking me to the Super Bowl."

What they're thinking: At this age, your child's lies are more deliberate. She may purposely "forget" to tell you something or omit certain details. (Technically, she doesn't have any homework, but she has a math quiz.) Also, friends and social standing are really important to her, so don't be surprised if she lies to impress her classmates or to get something that she wants. As kids get older, they also sometimes stretch the truth to protect their privacy and stake out their independence.

Truth tactics: "Don't try to trap your child in a lie or ask questions when you already know the answers," says Kostelc. But make it clear when you know she's not being truthful. You might say, "That doesn't sound like the truth to me. Want to think for a minute and start over?" And skip the lectures. She'll be more willing to come clean if you use a calm voice -- no sarcasm necessary. When she admits the truth, acknowledge it and move on.

If you overhear your kid talking to friends about something that never happened or never will (that trip to the Super Bowl), don't embarrass her in front of her pals. Let it go until you have a moment alone together and remind her that people won't believe her if she makes things up. Explain to her that her friends will like her for who she is -- she doesn't have to lie to impress them. "Kids don't tolerate other kids' lies," says Dr. Di Prisco. "Her friends will call her on her fibs long before you do."

Finally, remember that your child is growing up and, within reason, has a right to privacy. If you pry, or interrogate her about every phone call or e-mail, she'll lie just to get you to back off. Most important, create a nurturing environment at home. If a child, whether she's 6 or 16, knows she can talk to you about anything, anytime, she's far less likely to lie.

Are Little White Lies Okay?

They are...but don't expect a preschooler to understand that. "Young kids are very literal and quick to spot hypocrisy," says Dr. Richard Gallagher. "If you preach, 'This family never lies!' but then nudge a 4-year-old child to 'Tell Aunt Susie you love the gift,' he'll be confused. And he'll call you on it."

By 6 or 7, a child can grasp that sometimes fudging the truth can spare a person's feelings. But help your child find a way to be polite while still being honest. If he's less than thrilled about a present, he might say, "Thanks for thinking of me." "Young kids show a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of how deceit can preserve friendships," says Dr. Gamble. When she studied lying among schoolchildren, she found that even 6-year-olds tell "pro-social lies" -- those designed to protect or help others. For example, most children said they wouldn't tell a bully looking for their friend where their friend was even if they knew. It's up to you to teach your child the difference between telling a white lie to protect a friend's feelings and being dishonest to cover up when she's done something wrong.

Raise a More Honest Kid

A fib now and again is no big deal, but if your child develops a habit of lying, it could signal a deeper problem. If you notice any of the following warning signs, consult your pediatrician, school counselor, a child psychologist, or your clergyman.

  • A pattern of deceit at home, at school, and with friends.
  • Other antisocial behaviors, such as stealing or bullying.
  • No sadness or remorse when a lie is unmasked.

To encourage honesty:

1. Set an example. Kids will imitate what you do and say. So instead of sweet-talking your way out of a parking ticket, admit your mistake and pay the fine. When your mother-in-law phones, don't duck the call by pretending you're out. You get the picture.

2. Be honest about your emotions too. If your child sees that you're sad or worried, don't tell him, "It's nothing; I'm fine." Kids need to know that it's unhealthy to stuff negative feelings inside and pretend everything's all right.

3. Nurture self-esteem. Confident kids are less likely to embellish the truth. Find ways to help your child feel good about herself. Spend more one-on-one time with her, help her explore a new hobby, and cheer on her achievements.

Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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