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Children Who Lie - Thoughts on What Parents Should Do

Updated on July 13, 2014
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

Author's Note

The "What I Think I Figured Out" part of this Hub is something I added as a way of making it clear that I'm not someone trained in the area of psychology (child psychology or otherwise). So what makes me think my ideas on this topic are worth sharing/reading? First, let me note that the ideas presented here are only things I think are valid and worth considering, rather than ideas I'm "trying to pass off as scientific fact (particularly with regard to any specific child)". They come from a pretty decent knowledge of the area of child development, being pretty "tuned-in" to human nature, living a long and whole enough life to have had quite a few people in it, as well as personal experiences; and a memory that (if I remember to pay attention to it) helps me recall how it feels to be a child in this world. (I'm actually a little uncomfortable sharing these "credentials" out of fear of coming across as immodest, but I think readers want to know (and deserve to know) what, in view of the fact that I'm not a trained in child psychology, "makes me think I have something to offer". So, for what it's worth or not worth, that's it.

Besides, I have a tremendous faith in the general "OK-ness" of children (and people in general). It bothers me to hear so many adults (parents and even professionals) imply that some children have something "wrong with them" when so often what's wrong isn't with the child, himself, but with his not-yet-mature, child's, response to a world that doesn't understand him quite as well as he needs. In many ways children's emotions are as sturdy as the hardware that lets me put this writing on the Internet. In other ways, they're as easily thrown off as some of the delicate electronics behind all that hardware. In other words, so often, a child's "bad" behavior is nothing more than his response to something he isn't getting from the world around him (even if, to adults, that thing wouldn't seem "all that important").

I'm not expecting readers to just take my ideas as fact. I'm hoping they may consider what's presented here, use it as a foundation for coming up with their own questions, and perhaps look more closely at the world immediately around the child when looking for what's wrong. When it comes to behavior (a child's or an adult's) that would seem to indicate "emotional problems", a good part of the time the cause doesn't come from something "innately wrong" with the child, but instead from something (even some small thing) someone (or a lot of people) around him is doing or not doing.

What I Think I've Figured Out About Kids Who Lie

As far as I've ever seen, most kids lie; and an awful lot of adults lie as well.

Sometimes I think the best way for parents to understand how to deal with their child's lies is to ask themselves, "Did I ever lie as a child?" If the answer is, "yes," then they may better understand why their child lies. If, on the other hand, a parent can honestly say s/he has never lied as a child then it may help to ask what it was his/her parents did that made him such an honest child. It can sometimes seem as if parents come in two varieties - those who lied, remember how they lied, and don't want their children to be as dishonest as they were; and those who lied but just don't seem to remember how often they did.

Depending on the parents and on the child, some children lie more than others. There are, of course, children who have emotional issues and lie beyond the "normal" kind of lying that most kids do. Obviously, if a parent suspects a child is very unhappy or otherwise having emotional problems a counselor should be consulted. I'm not addressing abnormal lies here. The truth (like that word?) is, though, that an awful lot of kids' lying can seem kind of pathological to parents; but sometimes that's just because parents seem to forget all the reasons kids have for lying.

About Me:

Before I go on, if you believe nothing else I say, believe this: On the spectrum of honest adults, I have grown up to be just about at the farthest end of the honesty scale that any adult could be. Honest! I have a good memory, though, and it is based on my own childhood experience with lying that I offer what I think I've figured out. (For the record, I have three recently grown children, each of whom would be considered a generally honest person, but all of whom are still not above leaving out certain facts to spare me worry or spare themselves my "going on and on".)

When my kids were young and would lie I'd say something like, "I don think I can believe what you just told me." (in a "neutral way") Then, unless the matter was particularly critical (which it seldom, if ever, was) I'd let it go. Sometimes the truth would be so obvious there was no letting it go, and that was when I would let the offender know that I had discovered the truth, wasn't pleased to have been lied to, but understood that all children mess up from time to time (and this was one of those times for that, particular, child).

Here's Why I Handled It that Way:

On the one hand, I wanted them to know that there lie didn't fly. Still, I didn't want to keep the "encounter" going because a) I knew it was usually unlikely I'd ever get the truth, which would make me look ineffective and b) I remembered being a kid and telling my share of lies too.

Recalling Why I Lied When I Was A Child:

The same child can lie for different reasons at different times. While this may create the impression that the child is just a long-term, pathological, liar; it may help parents to understand that many of the lies children tell are not lies planned to tell. Some are, of course, but even those lies that are intended to keep a child from getting in trouble with parents are often told out of a sense that there is no other choice. Kids think differently, and they have a way of getting themselves in too deep.

When I was a kid I would sometimes lie to little friends in an almost innocent way. I'd tell some big whopper about having a white horse in the basement because I'd wanted to engage the other kid in my fantasy. There would have been something about saying, "Hey, let's pretend I have a white horse in my basement" that would have taken the magic out of the fantasy. The trouble was the dull little kid I played with didn't get what I was trying to do, asked my parents if there was a horse in the basement, and got my parents to lecture me on why lying is such a horrible thing to do. I was four.

When I got older I'd lie to my parents about something because I didn't want to hear a lecture, worry them, get in trouble, etc. It wasn't so much that I wasn't willing to hear the lecture, and my parents never hit me. It was that I knew if my parents found out something (for example, that at ten I put lipstick on and went to the store with my friend in it) they'd see it as a bigger problem with me than it really was. I saw it as "just something I wanted to try". They saw most things as a problem. They were even parents who would say things like, "I don't understand what makes you do these things."

As a child, though, I knew lying was wrong. I knew how horrible it made me feel. I knew I didn't want to do it. There was always, however, some situation that would arise in which I couldn't help but tell a lie for the reasons I mentioned above. That, of course, got my parents on the thing about my "being a liar", and that set up a whole thing of yet one more of "these things" that I felt I couldn't stop myself from doing. In reality, I was a very kind and decent and otherwise honest person, as well as a good student. It was just that I had that kid instinct to do things like try lipstick or try cigarette smoking (one or twice) or walk a few streets farther away than I was supposed to, and then I was not able to simply tell the truth and let my parents know what a screw-up I was.

They would do the thing, "We're so disappointed in you" and "I'm hurt that you would do that". I didn't want to hurt or disappoint them, and I certainly didn't want them believing I had something inherently wrong with me as a human being.

Children want to be grown up. They want to try things. They sometimes break things. They generally mess up. Once I got a little older and past that stage (between six and, say, twelve/thirteen) I had outgrown that "curiousness" and "adventurousness" that young kids often have. Somewhere in my early teens I vowed to be a solid, honest, person - and I stayed honest ever since then.

As I got older and realized that children are developmentally and emotionally sometimes just too uncertain about themselves to always be honest (and also that very young children lie in an attempt to engage others in a fantasy) I realized the my parents' belief that there was something inherently wrong with my character because I wasn't above lying at 10 years old was wrong. As a kid I knew lying was wrong, didn't want to lie, but felt pushed into as a result of having done something I couldn't resist doing (and that seemed like a good idea at that time) but later needing to deal with being caught.

Part of my childhood lying came from the immense respect I had for my parents. If I hadn't cared what they thought I probably wouldn't have lied. My parents had no idea that every lie I told brought with it terrible guilt and shame, even if nobody ever called me on it. I would feel ashamed that I was unable to control the need to lie in the first place; and no adult ever explained to me, "You messed up because you're a child. Children aren't always sure enough of themselves to just be honest about things." Instead, my parents would add to the guilt and shame, making me feel as if I was about the lowest of the lows or the biggest criminal in the world. (What makes it worse is they were generally really good, loving, parents. All they wanted was to raise a kid with integrity.)

So, when I had children of my own, and when they'd tell the occasional and obvious lie, I'd simply let them know I didn't feel I could believe what they were saying and move on. I assumed that they (also generally very well behaved, decent, children) felt as rotten about lying and their inability to make themselves tell the truth as I used to; and I chose to let them deal with their guilt and disgust with themselves without my adding to it. I always believed it was more important that I showed them that I understood that kids messed up and that I understood it was a part of being a child (and not that they had something wrong with their character). I wanted them to know that I knew that even people of good character mess up when they're children.

When kids do something they're ashamed of they don't want to share that shame with anyone, so they lie. They compound the original shame with the shame of lying and feel really horrible and overwhelmed by all the shame. I think when decent kids mess up and then lie about it (or else try to engage someone in a fantasy by telling a whopper) they need adults to help them realize that although what they did wasn't right, and although lying is always wrong, they messed up because they're kids and shouldn't feel ashamed the occasional mess-up. I'm not talking about a child who has serious emotional problems and is a pathological liar. I'm talking about the child who messes up a few times a week and doesn't handle the situation the way a self-assured adult would (by being honest).

As for my own children, they grew up to be people of very good character and grew up knowing that they could count on their mother to understand their mess-ups and give them guidance about cleaning up any of those messes.

When Parents Focus on the Lie, Rather than on the Original Misdeed (and talk about how lying is worse than the original deed or else keep insisting on a truth that doesn't seem to be coming):

Looking back on my own reasons to lie, I remember actually just kind of having some kind of "short-circuiting" going on that wouldn't let the truth come out. In my head I'd know my parents really wanted the truth. I really did want to go with it, but the words wouldn't come out.

It was as if once the lie had been told (and then found out or suspected) everything just got overwhelming and too complicated to handle - so I'd freeze up. (Of course, in those days there was the church telling people about how every lie was black mark on their soul. All I could picture was how horrible my soul must have looked - and that didn't help.

I just remember how the lie would then become the issue, and, of course, the shame of lying was worse than the shame of having gone to some street I shouldn't have walked to.

Is It Better to Focus on the Consequences of Lying, Rather than on the Shame of Being Dishonest?

I wonder if emphasizing to kids the horrible way a lie turns a simple mess-up into a big, complicated, thing rather than emphasizing the shamefulness of being dishonest, would help kids stop lying more effectively. I wonder, too, if parents didn't allow the lie to become the issue and instead allowed it to remain a secondary one, whether that would help. For a child, "forgetting" a rule or breaking a vase doesn't feel as shameful as lying, which they've learned is a sign of bad character.

I remember that even the original lie didn't seem like a soul-blackener until my parents started talking about it. If you think of it, parents send that message that the lie is the worst thing; so they raise the emotional stakes for the kid who would have liked to been able to tell the truth shortly after the original (and even automatic) lie.

It isn't always a simple thing to know how to handle.

One Final Thought:

Sometimes parent don't think twice about lying in front of, or to, their children. Children get the idea that lying is the way people operate. This is yet one more cause of lying in children. Sometimes it's even a parent's hating his own lying that makes it all that much more crucial to him that his child doesn't lie.

The truth (there's that word again) is that one of the best ways to raise honest children is to be honest parents. Letting children live with examples of how honest adults operate, and helping them to understand that with maturity comes the self-confidence to tell the truth, is generally a sound approach.

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