When Your Kids Lie
As much as we don’t want to admit it, people (adults and kids) stretch the truth, tell “white lies”, or tell great big whopper lies. As parents, we need to know what causes our kids to lie and how we can best respond to our kids when they tell lies.
Kids don’t need to learn to lie: it comes naturally for psychological reasons. Lies are usually goal-oriented behavior. For example, John may tell a lie to prevent himself from experiencing the psychological discomfort of getting caught and getting in trouble. Jane may tell a lie because she likes great stories so she makes reality a little more interesting. Paul may tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
When you catch one of your kids telling a lie, it’s best to confront the lie in a calm manner. If there is a chance that there is a good faith misunderstanding, a simple difference in a recollection, you may begin by seeking clarification. For example, you may say, “Katie, that’s not the way I recall the event. Here’s how I recall it:_________. Did you see or hear something that I missed?” You might also discuss related events that indicate the correct version of the event and ask Katie what related events she has seen that support her recollection. Often, the varying versions of the event can be reconciled and the original differences can then be chalked up to misunderstanding, memory issues, differing exposures (one person may have missed some of the information), or different interpretations of the event.
If the lie that Katie told is an obvious lie (no chance for a misunderstanding, etc., as noted above), then you should confront the lie more directly, but still in a calm, non-accusatory manner. For example, you may say, “Katie, that’s not right. What’s causing you to say that?” At first, Katie may not want to disclose, but you should persevere. You may say, “Katie, are you feeling insecure in your relationship there? Is that why you fibbed?” If Katie ultimately shares her motivation with you, you should be empathetic of her motivation but not her behavior. For example, you may say, “Katie, I very much value your tender heart. It is wonderful that you didn’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings. Was there a way to handle that situation that would have accomplished your kind-hearted goal without your telling a fib?” If Katie does not ultimately share her motivation with you, you will need to stop persevering when you perceive that your pursuing the matter further will only make Katie upset with you. At the point that you choose to stop persevering, you may say, “OK, Katie, I understand that you don’t want to talk about this. I’ll accept your boundary right now, but please know that if you ever want to talk about how you’re feeling or what’s going on in your life, I am here for you.”
At the conclusion of each discussion about honesty, communicate your boundaries on honesty (ensure that you behave within those same boundaries). At what point does truth stretching become a lie to you? Are white likes acceptable to you? If the situation warrants it, you may also discuss the importance of trust in relationships and how difficult it is to reestablish trust once it’s damaged. Your final words in wrapping up any discussion on fibbing should be that you love and accept your child (lying is “bad”, but your child is not).
If Katie continues telling lies regularly beyond age nine, then your response needs to switch from training mode (as noted above) to diagnosing and progressive disciplining mode. Begin this latter response style by taking Katie to a mental health practitioner who can determine if there are underlying mental health concerns that need to be addressed. Also, you may need to begin progressive discipline. Taking steps such as the denial of dinner-time desserts or social activities with friends, the assignment of additional chores around the home, or grounding can reinforce the importance of adhering to the boundaries you’ve provided to your kids.
By following these steps, you can instill your boundaries in your kids, reinforce those boundaries, and provide your kids with a psychological safe space to clear up fibs when they happen.
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