And A Simple Way To Stop It
As parents, we all want our kids to grow up and be honest people. The reality is, though, that most kids try out lying at one time or another. Worse, as well-meaning parents, we can — gasp! — sometimes lead our kids into lies.
If it's not handled well, the situation can become really difficult for parents. It erodes trust and we start to wonder and worry what's really going on with our kids, says Phil Houston, a former CIA officer and co-author of Spy the Lie. He calls this a "mind virus."
And, as kids get older, some of the lies can be serious ones, he says. "For example, lies about drug and alcohol use, lies about who they are associating with or interacting with, lies about dishonest behavior such as petty theft." These can have disastrous consequences for families.
So how do we make sure our kids learn the importance of telling the truth from the start — and how do we handle it when our kids aren't honest?
There are a few keys:
- understanding when and why kids lie
- modeling honesty and demonstrating the costs of dishonesty
- creating a safe environment for truth-telling
When and why kids lie
Children as young as 3 might consciously lie, says Christina Steinorth, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships.
They do this because they're trying to cover up for something they did that they know was wrong, she says.
Lying to get out of trouble is common, says Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and author of About.com's discipline site. But it's just one of four types of lies parents need to watch out for, she says.
Other types of lies include the "fantasy type," where a child talks about, say, a ride she's taken on a unicorn, or a trip to Walt Disney World for lunch.
There's also the braggy lie, where kids claim to have achieved something they didn't, or own something they don't — any sort of bogus self-aggrandizement.
And finally, there's the outright lie, sometimes about something that doesn't even seem significant.
For kids ages 5 and under, lying is common and not something to worry about. Indeed, the fictions that escape their tiny lips can be opportunities to teach them about the importance of honesty.
Once a child is in second grade or so, he or she is emotionally ready to understand lying and its negatives, says Dr. Tina Paone, founder and clinical director of the Counseling Center at Heritage, which specializes in therapy for children.
It's vital at this point not to let dishonesty slide. Not only is it hard on a parent-child relationship, it certainly will hurt kids academically and socially if it becomes chronic, Morin says. What's more, the habit can become so ingrained that kids aren't even aware they're doing it.
How to teach honesty
One of the best ways to teach honesty is to model it. Sometimes, it's easier said than done. Few of us want to be the parent who tells the 3-year-old, "Santa is a lie! So is the Tooth Fairy! And I have equally bad news about the Easter Bunny!" Here, being honest when the time comes and explaining the reasons for the fantasy are key.
"If they see fibbing in their environment, they are going to do it more," Paone says. This includes watching siblings and other kids lie, and even characters on television. "Seeing others fibbing and getting away with it develops awareness that they can get away with it."
So, if you have a 6-year-old and pretend he is 5 to qualify for free museum admission, you are teaching that child that it's OK to lie for self-gain. If your kids see you do this, chances are they'll follow suit.
"No matter how small or how insignificant it might seem, it is a slippery slope," says Ann Morgan James, author of How to Raise a Millionaire.
"Once kids learn they can lie and get away with it, you are in trouble."
And our kids are always watching. They're watching to see if we wear our seatbelts. To see if we fail to return the extra change we were accidentally given at the supermarket. Whether we pay our bills on time. Even what we say to telemarketers, says Chantelle Adams, a motivational speaker and mother of four kids under 10. "The best teacher is our own example," she says.
Likewise, if you set up reward systems at home that can be beaten with fibs, you're putting your kids in the path of temptation.
Bill Corbett, host of the parenting TV show "Creating Cooperative Kids," recalls a mom in his parenting class who'd told her daughter she'd earn a reward every morning she woke up with a dry diaper. "One morning, the mother found a wet Pamper stuffed under the little girl's dresser," he says. The mother had unwittingly taught the child to lie to get what she wanted.
James, who has a middle-school-age child named Jack, developed a radical method of teaching kids her son's age the cost of dishonesty. Because kids don't have the life experience to know how it feels to be burned by a liar — in business or in personal relationships — they have a hard time grasping why their own lies are a big deal.
She recommends a controlled experiment in which you make yourself untrustworthy — a big deal for kids, because parents are usually the most trusted people in their world.
"Explain you are going to show them exactly what it is like not to be able to trust someone," she says. Warn them that you are going to lie at some point over the next few days. Tell innocent ones, one after the other. For example, when you drop them off at school, tell them that you'll go out for ice cream afterward. On your way home, don't go. When they ask about it, simply say, "I lied. Very matter-of-fact. No emotion, just the facts."
Keep telling them these small, inconsequential lies, she says. "As a result, over a short period, they will not be able to trust what you say."
Usually, this results in a heartfelt request for you to stop it. Then talk about the lack of trust that results from lying. Kids will be able to understand how it makes someone feel.
What not to do
Don't be afraid to call out your children over bad behavior. Many parents want to be liked so much that they let things slide, says Steinorth, the author and psychotherapist. Think of it as an investment in your child's future, one that will pay off when it matters most.
In the heat of the moment, it's easy to become so upset by a lie your child has told that you get angry, and maybe even call him or her a liar. Don't do this. You want to be a safe person for your child to talk to.
"If you are quick to anger when they break something or make a wrong choice, it is very likely their fear will override their desire to be honest, and they will lie to avoid punishment," says Adams, the motivational speaker. "Discipline with love."
In other words, you don't want to make telling the truth and facing your wrath seem worse than the lie itself.
And instead of focusing on the lie, says Corbett, the TV host, fix the issues caused by the lying. For example, if a child swipes a pack of gum from the grocery store, take her back to pay for it.