"L" Is for Lie: Why Kids Lie

Let’s be honest, we all tell lies. So should we really be so taken aback by the prospect of our children following suit? The short answer is no, it’s developmentally normal for kids to start experimenting with using deception at a young age. But while most children from time to time bend the truth for reasons ranging from hiding something they think you’ll be disappointed about to making a sticky situation a little easier to navigate, it’s our roles as parents to monitor the way our kids are learning to communicate and provide context so they can develop a well-defined moral code.


Yes, it can be a little unnerving that first time your precious little one looks you in the eye and tells you something you know isn’t true. However, we can better prepare for dealing with occurrences of subsequent untruthfulness by recognizing the different types of lies kids typically tell and having a strategy for dealing with it. Because putting in the necessary time, effort and understanding on this sometimes awkward subject can not only help you raise an honest, well-adjusted and outwardly aware child – if done so collectively as a community of responsible parents, it might just make this pervasively cynical world around us (remember, this is an election year) a more virtuous and genuine place.


The Truth About Lies


Lisa Fiore, a professor teaching early childhood and elementary education and psychology courses at Lesley University, affirms that yes, every kid lies. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “We automatically think lying is terrible, but as adults we know there are some reasons to lie … to protect people’s feelings, for instance,” she says. Most of us would admit to having told a sensitive friend you like her new haircut when you really don’t, or saying you don’t mind when someone important to you forgets your birthday. “There are ways that lying is a benevolent act. It’s discerning between the reasons that’s the challenge.”


William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life (Free Press, 2009), says it’s important to separate the “little white lies” we use to be polite, tactful and courteous and the whole domain of fantasy from lying that’s intentionally deceptive and potentially harmful.


“You’re not born with a gene that gives you a compass through all the different realms of truth and non-truth and white lies and serious lies and so on,” says Damon. “So that’s part of learning and it’s part of parenting, to help young people get this straight and to understand when deception is harmful to you and to the people you are deceiving.”


One of the first motivators for children to bend the truth is to protect themselves, what Fiore describes as the self-preservation, save-my-own-behind kind of a lie. “For young children, that really comes from their desire to please adults,” she says. “Whether it’s a teacher or a caregiver, they don’t want to disappoint.”

What commonly develops next is lying or cheating to gain an advantage, whether in a board game, sports or at school. It’s important as parents to help young people understand when deception is actually a breach of trust, unfair or hurtful, and that it’s an act they need to learn to avoid. “It may seem to be in your short-term interest, but long term you’ve actually harmed an important relationship and you’ve done something hurtful,” Damon says.


As kids get older and become more social, there often becomes the issue of lying to misrepresent who you are, something parents may take a bit more seriously if persistent. Kids might claim they own a new video game or that they know someone famous when it isn’t true in an effort to appear more impressive in the eyes of their friends. “I think that’s important to look out for when peers start taking on a more significant role in children’s lives. They will do that. They will boast or brag. Is it a harmful lie? Not necessarily. But is it a lie? Sure. It’s not the truth,” Fiore says.


Dealing with Disinformation


There are obvious emotions attached with catching your kids in a lie, whether they’re telling you it was the dog that actually broke the expensive vase in the living room or that they don’t have homework so they can watch TV. In cases such as this, it’s understandable to feel angry, hurt or even betrayed. However, it’s important to recognize it as a teaching moment and understand your reaction will play a role in influencing future behaviors.


As for how to respond, Fiore starts with what not to do. “Guilt and shame … that’s the worst. If ever there’s a way to shut down communication with a child, make them feel so bad they never want to tell you anything. Our society is so full of shame and guilt. You want to try and eliminate that as much as possible.”


Fiore explains all children want their parents’ love, and they might worry that it’s not unconditional. So they’re naturally not going to want to take responsibility for things like stealing a sibling’s cookie or using mom’s lipstick to write on the wall, because they sense you’re going to be angry or disappointed. Fiore says we need to separate the person from the behavior. There’s a difference between expressing you’re disappointed in the actions that transpired, as opposed to saying, “I’m disappointed in you.”


Damon agrees, adding, “You do not want the child to get the label of liar. You don’t want to stigmatize them. You want to put it in the context of, ‘OK, you made a mistake, that’s not good. Everyone makes mistakes and you can do better. So learn from this, take it seriously, take responsibility – but don’t go away feeling bad about yourself.’”


He recommends sending a positive message as early as possible by modeling truthful behavior, so your children are in an atmosphere of honesty – a kind of culture of truthfulness in the home that you can encourage them to practice on their own.


“A virtue is just another word for a moral habit,” says Damon. “Habits are built gradually through practice over the course of a lifetime. So people can get into the habit of being untruthful. Or they can get into the habit of being truthful, where it just comes naturally when someone asks about you or what you did or why you did something, you don’t think, ‘Well, what’s to my advantage or what’s the best story to tell?’ You just tell the truth.”


Watching for Warnings


While lying is a common developmental issue, in certain cases it can also be a signifier there’s something more serious at work. Are your kids lying to cover up the fact they’re failing at school? Being able to have a conversation to get to the truth might reveal the reason behind the deception. For instance, if they’ve developed a learning disability that makes it difficult to concentrate in class, they’re being bullied or they simply can’t see the blackboard as a result of an undiagnosed vision impairment.


Fiore believes you need to continue to stay connected with your kids and be observant to their actions and moods. Spotting signs your kids are lying, such as not being able to make eye contact, should be relatively easy, especially when they’re little. “Being quiet or answering you with very short responses, not wanting to talk about it, changing the subject, getting angry, just wanting to avoid it all together,” Fiore lists as signs your kids perhaps aren’t being truthful. “So it’s something to work through. Where you might have to sit face-to-face and say, ‘I want you to tell me about this. I know it’s hard, but I want to listen.’” At the same time, she reminds us that kids, especially teens, are entitled to their own private life. And they may not be open to sharing their deepest feelings all the time.


Another alarm, according to Damon, is when you confront your kids about something, and rather than apologize or take responsibility, they keep denying it. “Those would be the kinds of things that mean this is getting to be an embedded problem and something the child has difficulty overcoming. Rather than a one-time mistake or common yielding to temptation, which every child is going to do from time to time,” he says.


Both experts recommend staying in touch with your kids’ school and community of friends, especially teachers, since in many cases they often see kids more hours a day than anyone else.


“I think the red flag is when other people start giving you warnings your child is developing a reputation for doing dishonest things – whether it’s neighbors, friends, relatives or school people,” says Damon. Parents need to take these situations seriously. “So if your kid gets caught cheating in school or whatever, you don’t go in and act like a lawyer and try to get the kid off the hook. You cooperate with the teacher and say this is something that requires discipline and it’s good for my child in the long run to have that feedback rather than protect them from it.”


The Straight Truth


We live in a culture where lying increasingly seems like no big deal, and in some cases too easy to get away with. From the business world to the presidential candidate debates to the person in the office next to yours trying to take credit for your hard work, lying is a problem that impacts us all.


However, according to Damon, when you build a life on lies, it will eventually catch up with you. “You may get away with a lot of lies or dishonest behavior, you may even get to Wall Street and make a million bucks. But sooner or later the word is going to get out and either you’ll get in trouble or your relationships will get contaminated and nobody will really like you – there are all kinds of things that will happen,” says Damon. “Life is long and dishonesty may be a winner of a short-term strategy every now and then, but it’s a loser of a long-term strategy.”


Fiore agrees, adding if more people behaved with concern for others, we’d have a much happier, kinder place. “Instilling kids with seeds of kindness and compassion, we can’t do that enough,” she says.


So in the end it starts with you and your children; however, the problem of lying exists far beyond the microcosm of the family. It’s a real issue in our society, from business, politics and interpersonal relationships on down. Perhaps the best way to combat the negativity of wanton untruthfulness is to draw a line in the sand and do your best to be honest and forthright to provide the positive role model your children so desperately need.


Brian Spero is a father and frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.

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20 Nov 2015

By Brian Spero