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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why do children lie?

A few weeks ago when I was coming up to my 100th post, I asked some of my friends if there was anything in particular they'd like me to blog about to mark the occasion. In the end, of course, I blogged about something completely different, but one young mum's suggestion stuck with me. She wanted to know why her 5-year-old son had made up a story of one of her relatives physically abusing him, and presented it to her ex-partner as gospel truth.

Now, I have to say at the start that my friend KNEW this was a lie (because her child hadn't had any contact with that relative within the time frame suggested, and had had no unaccompanied contact with him at all).  Let me affirm that children's accusations of abuse should be assumed to be true until proved otherwise, because children rarely lie about those things.

So- in a case like this one, where you're sure your child is lying, why does it happen?

I have my own views on this subject, but it pays to be well-informed before you go spouting your theories all over the internet. One of the great things about continuing to study at uni is that I have access to research papers and other educational articles for my study. I put the question into the uni library's search engine, and found (amongst other things) a journal article from 'New York' about Dr Nancy Darling's research paper on children's lies. It started like this:

"Kids lie early and often, for all sorts of reasons- to avoid punishment, to bond with friends, to gain a sense of control. But now there's a singular theory for one way this habit develops: They are just copying their parents."
                                  -Po. Bronson

And that, my friends, smells awfully like the truth to me.

We know already, if we've done any significant reading about parenting, that modelling is the best way to influence your children's behaviour. Well, news flash: that applies to BAD behaviour as well as GOOD behaviour. And that applies also to behaviour which falls into a grey area- things like social drinking, swearing in certain circumstances or certain company, and the white lie.

Let's get one thing clear at the start: children under about 6 years of age don't have the same understanding of fact and fiction as we do. We bring them up on fairy tales and story books, tell them they're cute (please don't!) when they believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, and then expect them to be able to discriminate between what really happened and what they wish had happened when the cricket ball went through the plate glass?

Some consistency, please! You really can't apply adult standards of truthfulness to a small child.

What do we do when we suspect our small child is telling lies due to wishful thinking?

We get down on their level, we calm our voice and body language right down, we look them in the eye with a gentle touch on their arm to show our love, and we say 'Is that really what happened, or is that just what you wished had happened?' with a smile.

If you have a strong relationship of respect with your child, that should work every time.

Of course, that won't work if you've created a culture of going off your rocker when your kid tells you something true that you didn't want to hear. If you want to hear the truth, you have to be in control of your own reactions to unpleasant truths.

It also won't work if you've created a culture of punishment rather than of understanding, discussion and personal responsibility. Children lie when they're scared of the consequences of telling the truth. If you want the truth, you need to be using natural consequences rather than random penalties for misbehaviour.

Natural consequences are things like not replacing a toy that was broken through rage or carelessness, not bringing a sweater for your child if they refused to put one on or carry one when it's cold outside and not being co-operative when your child is rude to you. They have a logic that the child can understand. Yes, children will lie if you've made them too scared of the possible punishment when they tell the truth- and the unpredictability of punishments that aren't based on natural consequence is very, very scary.

What about kids who lie to be cool, to be approved of by friends? That's a much bigger problem and it has to be dealt with by improving the trust within your relationship with that child. Again, you've got to stay calm. Make sure you're sure it's a lie- don't jump to conclusions, because if an adolescent tells you the truth and you accuse them of lying it might take years to undo the damage.

Make very calm  'I' statements, not 'you' statements, and give reasons; 'I'm finding that a bit hard to understand, because I know that...' and 'Can you tell me a bit more about that? I don't quite understand how that happened.' And maybe, eventually, 'I'm feeling worried that you're not telling me the full story. Maybe you're worried how I'll react. Is that right?'

What about that punchline from the 'New York' article, though? Are we all modelling lies? Actually yes, nearly all of us are.  Most of us tell white lies every day, and some of us tell complete porkies.

"I'm sorry, officer, I didn't realise it was a 60 zone."

"I've got to get off the phone now, there's someone at the door / something burning on the stove."

"Of course your backside doesn't look big in that." 

Own up if you catch yourself doing it in front of your child.  They WILL tell lies at times- and so will you. Avoid modelling lying, of course- but model the correct response when you realise you've slipped up. The correct response is admit, explain, apologise. That's what you want them to do, isn't it?

Young children usually won't be able to work out the difference between kind lies and sly, deceitful lies in any consistent way.  By all means talk about not saying things that hurt other people's feelings, but spend a little time thinking about how you can avoid modelling even the white lies. For example, it's not going to help your girlfriend if you tell her that, actually, that dress makes her look two sizes bigger- but if she asks you, maybe instead of choosing a white lie you can suggest that it would be very flattering to add that nice darker jacket... or that you think she looks wonderful in that other dress.

My young friend's problem, however, sounds much more like a child lying to gain some control within a very difficult situation. When children detect that they're being used as ammunition in a break-up, they learn to manipulate the situation, because that's what's being modelled to them.  When children feel that they're not getting enough attention- for whatever reason- they'll find a way to get attention.

I can only imagine the ballistic reaction that an accusation of physical abuse got from this young boy's dad. It certainly would have got dad's attention- and mum's too- when maybe one or both of them were too engaged in their work, or their interpersonal squabbles, or their social life to give him plenty of time for positive parent-child interactions. It certainly would have changed the playing field around whatever was being suggested in the custody battle.

Remember, a 5-year-old would have no real concept of the extent of the damage caused by such an accusation.  If it got him out of going back to mum this week, where he knew he was due, say, to visit the dentist...

...well, it worked, didn't it?

Without knowing exactly what was going on for that child at that moment, I can't say for sure why he pulled such a blindingly awful lie out of the kit bag.  But I can prescribe a way to minimise future occurrences.

My prescription for this family is:

Spend more time on positive interactions between parent and child- spend some time each day just doing what he chooses with him. That counteracts the need to get attention by any means possible.

Calm down and slow down in everything you're doing together, and talk to him a lot, and honestly, about what you're doing and why.  You need to build openness and dialogue.

Give him small responsibilities, starting with things he wants to do like fetching a certain number of treats from the cupboard so you can each have some, so he feels he's trusted and important.

Defuse your reactions within the custody battle- make NO instantaneous responses and have a default position of 'leave that with me and I'll get back to you' in a quiet voice. Then deal with it CALMLY when you've had time to calm down and your child is sound asleep or elsewhere. You can't control your ex, but you can model sensible behaviour yourself.

And be very, very careful of modelling hatred and saying hateful things about your ex-partner, because your child just copied what he's been hearing from someone.  Again, you can't control your ex, but you can control yourself.

Read to your child. Start talking about what's real and what's just a story that someone made up. Help him distinguish between truth and not-truth.

And most of all, make sure you're not modelling lies, even polite white lies. You can't expect a 5-year-old to discriminate between a small convenient lie, or a lie that saves someone's feelings, and a major distortion of the facts.  If you catch yourself telling a lie in front of your child, own up to it, explain and apologise.

We have to treat the truth with great respect ourselves, if that's what we want from our children.


  1. Interesting post. It has been great having you on board EARLY PLAY AUSTRALIA to read all your thought provoking and sometimes controversial posts. Keep up the great work. Have a great holiday.

  2. Thanks Lesley! I see it as my role to make people think and reflect on practices which may have become habitual rather than responsive. Thank you for bringing my words to a wider audience.


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