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A lie is a form of an untruthful statement, especially with the intention to deceive others.  Children, at some point in their childhood, lie, and they lie for a number of different reasons.  Lying, for the most part, is a normal part of child development. This behavior can affect parents in many ways, and many parents wonder how the lying should be handled.  How lying is handled should depend on the age of the child, the specific situation, and the established family rules about lying. Below is some information that will help parents determine when lying should and should not be punished, and how it should be handled.

Other Names and Terms: Falsehoods, telling stories, misdeeds

Key Points of Discussion:  Parents, guardians, youth workers, and friends are ideal to help understand and deal with issues involving lying.  Listed below are key points that might be useful in discussing lying:

  • Explain/discuss why telling the truth is important. Parents should begin teaching their children the benefits of telling the truth while their children are young. They should be careful to use language that is age-appropriate. Parents should let their children know that telling the truth lets other people know that they can be trusted. They should also let their children know that lying is dishonest, and there are often negative consequences for lying. Parents can discuss examples of truthfulness and lying that they see on television, read in books, etc. Parents can also help prevent lying in their children by communicating effectively with them. This, too, should start while children are very young. Children who have open, honest relationships with their parents are much less likely to lie to them.
  • Model truthfulness. Children learn by watching their parents. Parents who lie to their children and in their children's presence are teaching their children that lying is an acceptable behavior. Parents should try to set a good example for their children by being as truthful as possible themselves.
  • Discipline for lying. Parents should set specific rules for lying, and specific punishments when lying occurs. These rules should be discussed with children before they are enforced. It is a good idea for parents to provide separate punishments for misbehavior and lying. When children misbehave but are honest about it, they should get a lesser punishment than when they misbehave and lie about it. Parents should make sure that there is a payoff for being honest. For example, when children are honest about their misdeeds, parents can praise their children for their honesty and then provide punishment for their misdeed. When children are dishonest about their misdeeds, they should provide a consequence for the dishonesty and/or the misdeed. Parents should be careful, however, not to be too severe or too frequent in their punishment, or their children may continue to lie as a means of protecting themselves.
  • Be consistent in treatment of lying. Come up with a set of rules about lying and then stick to them. Children should receive consequences accordingly each time they lie.
  • Make sure lying is not rewarding for children. Parents should be careful not to reward lying behavior in their children. If, for example, a child lies to get something he wants, parents should make sure he or she does not get it.
  • Don't shame children for lying. Parents should try not to make their children feel guilty for lying. Parents can let their children know that they are disappointed with their actions, but they should try hard to avoid sending the message that they are bad people for lying. Instead, parents should make sure their children know that they are being disciplined for their actions, not for who they are.
  • Don't set children up. Parents who are sure that their children have done some misdeed should not try to trap them in a lie by asking them whether or not they did it. Many children will lie to protect themselves when they are backed into a corner. Instead, parents should treat the situation matter-of-factly. Parents should explain to their children exactly what they did that was wrong and why, and then provide consequences. Along the same lines, it is also not a good idea for parents to demand confessions from their children or to punish their children for misdeeds that they are not absolutely sure their children did.
  • Figure out why children are lying, and then look for solutions. Parents should pay close attention to the lies their children tell. They should try to figure out if there is any specific pattern to their children's lies. If parents figure out specific reasons why their children tell lies, they should then look for specific solutions. For example, when children lie to boost their self esteem, parents should develop a strategy to increase their children's self-esteem, so that they do not have to lie to feel good about themselves.
  • Praise truthfulness. Parents should make every effort to praise their children when they are being honest. Behavior that is praised is much more likely to be repeated.
  • Seek professional help for persistent lying. Children who persistently lie may have underlying problems. In these instances, parents should seek professional help.

Talking to Children:

  • 4-5:  children at these ages are usually telling stories and making things up, because it is fun for them.  Teaching your children about fiction (make believe), and nonfiction (factual) is an important first step to teaching them about honesty and dishonesty.  Making it fun can be an effective way of reaching children at these ages.  When teaching your children about fiction, make up a silly story with talking animals and make-believe characters.  Your children will know animals do not talk, and dragons do not exist.   What they may not know is the new vocabulary: fiction, and nonfiction.   When teaching your children about nonfiction, retell a situation that actually happened. Make sure you give them a turn to tell both types of stories using their newfound words: fiction and nonfiction. 
  • 6-8:  children at these ages tend to lie because they may have emotional issues.  For example, a child may lie to you about getting in trouble with the teacher at school because he/she knows there will be a negative consequence.  Also, when a child seeks a lot of attention they may tell a lie with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.  They are aware of all the attention they are receiving for their antics.  Teach your children although they may get in trouble for getting in trouble because they made a wrong choice, the negative consequences will not be as bad as lying and getting caught.  Make sure your children know they can be honest with you, and praise them when they are. Children and adults are not immune to making wrong choices, but if we are accepted for not being perfect the lessons are easier to learn.
  • 9-11:  children at these ages know the difference between honesty and dishonesty.  They may lie about not having homework so they can watch a favorite show or play their favorite videogame.  It is common for a child to lie in order to avoid punishment, to protect someone,   Make sure you talk to your children about lying when it happens, because the lesson is more likely to be learned.   Remember, yelling is not an effective way to communicate.  Remaining calm is the key.  You are trying to teach a valuable lesson, and handling things in a calm manner will help you get your message across more effectively.  Teaching your children how to be proactive instead of reactive will make things easier on you and on them in the long run. Also, teaching your children honesty is the best policy will keep them out any unnecessary trouble.  Emphasize although we all make wrong choices, taking responsibility for our mistakes is important.  Taking time to teach your children about lying will help them build character, teach them responsibility, and help them accept no one is perfect.

Risk Factors:

As adults we are aware of how others view people who constantly lie.  The consequences of lying are:

  • Lack of trust,
  • Lack of believability,
  • Lack of reliability,
  • Do not take them seriously, etc.

You know you children better than anyone.  You know how they look when they are sick, hungry, angry, sleepy, etc.  You know these things not by because they tell you, but by their body language.  A few warning signs your child is lying:

  • Lack of or excessive eye contact,
  • Labored breathing,
  • Fidgety/nervous,
  • Looks around a lot, etc.

Coping Skills and Techniques:

If you suspect your child is lying there are several things you can do to make lying less attractive and rewarding for them:

  • Stay focused.  Keep the conversation on the problem or the situation.  Also, listen and do not shame or cast blame.
  • Do not trap your child.  If you know they have done something, do not threaten.  Instead tell them what you already know, and give them an opportunity to explain.
  • Ask questions from a place of love and concern, instead of anger and frustration.
  • Praise your children when they tell the truth.  If they have indeed done something wrong, choose a consequence that is appropriate for the action.  Disciplining children in a kind and rational manner is not always easy, but if you take your time to think things through chances are you will avoid making a mistake.
  • Explain why telling the truth is important.  Make it clear by being honest others are reassured they can be trusted.
  • Be honest, especially in front of your children.  Young minds learn by example and what is modeled for them.  Showing your children you are an honest person will help create an honest child. 
  • Discipline appropriately for lying.  If you want lasting results there should always be clear rules and clear consequences for misbehavior.
  • If habitual lying continues, seek help for your child.