Story telling is an important part of normal development, and it is present across cultures and societies. Imagination and creativity that emerges during childhood allows for future advancements and discoveries throughout the lifespan. Replacing reality with our own version of life is an important coping skill but it can also serve to cause trouble. We all can enjoy the innocence of a child telling us about the dragons they are fighting in the backyard or the pet unicorn in their room. The trouble comes when these tales become untruths about real life situations and are being used by the child for a specific purpose. There is a very thin line between a reaction to your child’s lie / fantasy that will create open communication and trust or more calculated dishonesty. Your reaction has a lot to do with your child’s age, personality, and maturity level. Although general advice can work in some instances, it is important to consider your individual child.
If you catch your pre-school child lying, it is important to understand whether it is a real lie or a fantasy. Having an age appropriate discussion regarding how lies can be harmful is a good place to start. Normally, children at this age lie for self protection because of past discipline or an understanding of right and wrong. A child that lies about drawing a picture with markers on the wall or breaking your favorite vase understands that what they did was wrong and is trying to escape punishment. What they don’t understand, lucky for you, is that often their lies are illogical and easily identified by caretakers. There are many tactics used by parents to help shape their communication with their children. Often parents will tell the story of the boy who cried wolf and explain that if they tell the truth in the future their consequences will be less severe. The important thing is to follow through on consequences each time but praise them highly for being honest.
When your child gets past the stage of illogical, far-fetched lies, such as about the invisible friend that ate all the cookies, it is time to change your approach. Children can sharpen their lying skills in school where they are able to test their abilities on lots of adults and peers. At this age, lying can become an issue of safety. Lying can serve more of a purpose than simply not getting into trouble. As your child matures, they will likely begin to feel as though they are more prepared for adult responsibilities and decisions. Usually, when they ask for permission and are given a negative response, they will take it upon themselves to find a way to achieve their goal. It could also be an attempt to gain control over some aspect of an ever changing life as a pre-teen. Under these circumstances it is necessary to evaluate your response to their inquiries. Saying no without an explanation leaves them feeling as though they will never have the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness, which might lead to dishonesty. The conversations you have with a school aged child about lying need to be a two way street. While you can explain your concerns about the lies, without yelling or judgment, it is imperative to allow the child to tell you what they are seeking, what their needs are, and what they are gaining from lying. The more calm and receptive you are to their point of view the likelier they are to be more honest in the future.
If, by chance, you have survived into parenting a pre-adult teenager who lies, join the masses. These are the years where they believe their life is their own and what they do is none of your business. They are able to lie without getting caught due to more freedom and less people to inform you of their dishonesty. At this age, you will often find out about a lie because of an incident that required the intervention of an authority figure or evidence of the untruth. Sometimes the natural consequences will serve as punishment enough but that does not mean a conversation is not in order about dishonesty. Until your child is in their late-teens they will not yet have fully developed the ability to foresee consequences of their actions. Warning them of what could happen from lying could spark contemplation but often does not deter the behavior. Some parents opt to explain that if the teen chooses to lie that any consequences that occur will be the responsibility of the teen. Following through on this can be difficult, especially if there is a legal issue, but in the long run, the lesson will be learned. For smaller offences, the tried and true solution of taking away freedoms and allowing them to earn them back can be useful, but that doesn’t excuse you from having a civil conversation about what purpose lying serves and how communication can be more effective in the future.
Author: Dr. Tali Shenfield
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ebolasmallpox/3000952179