Lying in children
Lying is prolific in our culture. We all lie every day: white lies to save someone’s dignity or help them feel better are a part of adult life. One study found that in the course of a week, adults lie to about 30% of those with whom they interact one-to-one (DePaulo et al 1996). Moreover, that only includes “proper” lies (statements that deliberately convey a false impression) such as “my train was delayed” or “that dress looks great”, not the mindless pleasantries we all say regularly such as “I’m fine thanks” or “no trouble at all”.
We are generally told as children (and continue to tell our own children) that it is very important to always tell the truth. However, children observe adults closely and soon spot that the adults around them don’t always practice what they preach. In addition, parents may tell children that it will all be fine as long as they just tell the truth, although we know ourselves that this is often not the case: you are less likely to get in trouble if you tell your employer that public transport let you down rather than that you overslept. In this way, society as a whole often actually rewards deception.
Despite this, parents understandably tend to get furious or upset when children don’t tell the truth. Despite our own “minor” lying behaviours, we don’t want our children to lie to us, or to develop into adults who lie beyond the “acceptable” norm. Preventatively, there are a few things we can think about as parents:
• Firstly, we need to consider our reaction to our children’s behaviour more generally: if we react with obvious anger, extreme disappointment or upset when a child breaks something or does something wrong then they are more likely to learn as they grow older to try to avoid that reaction from us by lying.
• Secondly, we need to set as good an example as possible ourselves and talk to children about how lying can stop people trusting them and can damage relationships.
• Finally, we need to remember to praise children for telling the truth about things, even if you also have to show displeasure at what they have admitted to doing.
How to manage things when our children inevitably do lie is also important and obviously depends on their stage of development. The difference between adult and children’s lies is that children haven’t yet learnt how to lie in a socially approved way and the acquisition of this “skill” follows quite a predictable developmental path:
Lying in toddlers is generally limited to self-serving fibs such as “no poo” when they clearly have one, simply because they don’t want their nappy changed.
What to do: Just state what has actually happened, sympathise (e.g. “you didn’t want to have your nappy changed, did you?”) and move on.
In preschoolers, lying usually has a more playful quality and there is often an element of wish-fulfillment, where the child really wishes that something were true. Developmentally, separating fantasy from reality is still tricky at this age and they can sometimes really convince themselves of the lie (i.e. If they say it, then it has happened).
What to do: At this age, children can get extremely upset if challenged or not believed and getting into a battle over what is or isn’t true is likely to escalate things further. It is more helpful to explore with the child whether s/he wishes that their version had actually happened, in this way gently reminding them of what really took place.
By school age, children have worked out that lying can sometimes be beneficial for them and can help them avoid trouble and it therefore tends to reach a peak between ages 6 and 10. At this age, conscience is not yet well developed and they tend to focus more on the ultimate outcome than the process (“I got an extra biscuit because I told Mummy that Grandma forgot to give me one”).
With the development of conscience, children will start to show signs of feeling guilty even if they haven’t been “caught”, so lying generally begins to decrease as children approach the age of 10 (although lies about homework or brushing teeth are still not unusual). Around this time, you also begin to see some pro-social lying such as white lying to spare someone else from getting into trouble.
What to do: acknowledge that maybe s/he is feeling worried about what we will think if they tell us what really happened whilst also expressing your displeasure at the lie. At a later time, use it as an opportunity to discuss the importance of trust and explore how you may be able to be helpful in the future if they can tell you about worries or problems as they arise.
Chronic lying may be a sign of fear or underlying anxiety. Children lie compulsively when they are afraid of the consequence (punishment) or a parent’s reaction. If parents regularly shout, lose their temper or mete out harsh punishments when a child does something wrong then it is to be expected that children may lie as a means of trying to protect themselves. Children are more likely to be honest when they see that their parents will listen before accusing, show some understanding and keep their temper in check.