Raising children to be honest, ethical, and responsible is as important as raising them to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. Honesty, ethics, and responsibility are more than mere character traits. They are essential life skills that must be learned. Here are strategies for teaching truthfulness and for addressing those challenging situations when you have discovered that your children have lied.
Encourage Truthfulness: Accountability Rather Than Punishment
Encouraging truthfulness is more effective than punishing dishonest behavior. This approach starts with controlling your own anger and other intense emotional responses associated with having been lied to by your children. Anger creates fear in children, and it is important to remember that the most common reason for children’s lying is fear of their parents’ anger. Your child will be more likely to tell you the truth if she knows your response will be calm and rational. Remember, too, that anger prevents you from engaging in constructive problem-solving that encourages your child’s truthfulness and accountability.
Interrogating and attempting to force a confession—especially if you already know your child has done something wrong—actually fuels your child’s need to lie and doesn’t enable him to take responsibility for his actions. Instead, calmly state your awareness of the transgression, which enables you to dive right into problem-solving and accountability about the problem itself: “I understand you didn’t complete your homework this week. Tell me what happened so we can figure out how to prevent this from happening again.” Or, if you suspect, but aren’t sure, of your child’s actions, give second chances for her to be honest: “I have a feeling you broke curfew last week, but I want to hear from you what happened. You don’t seem ready to talk to me right now, but I am here when you are ready to tell me about that night. We can then talk about how to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Another way to encourage truthfulness is to illustrate ways to tell the truth to get needs met. Understanding the context for your child’s lying helps you identify the underlying need for the lie, which then gives you an opportunity to teach your child more legitimate ways to get legitimate needs met. For example you might say, “Sometimes kids lie when they feel trapped or scared. Is this how you feel about not being able to get your homework done? What can we do about this?” Or, “I can understand you want more time with your friends. Let’s figure out a way for you to get this without having to break curfew and lie to me.”
Finally, you can help your child connect feelings with lying. Describe how it feels for your child to lie to you and its impact on you and your relationship. Help your child understand the connections among lying, trust, and freedom. You might say, “I can imagine how uncomfortable it must have been for you to keep the truth from me. That probably made you feel really worried and scared. I know I feel better knowing the truth, but I am going to need some time to rebuild my trust in you. Until I trust you to come home on time, I am going to make your weekend curfew 9 instead of 10 pm,” or, “I can imagine how bad it must have felt to lie to me about this. I feel badly about it, too. Until I can trust you to turn in your homework assignments on your own, I am going to need to check your homework each night before you go to bed.” You may notice in these examples, that the result is a natural consequence of the wrongdoing itself—i.e, the reason for the lie—rather than a punishment for lying.
Understand the Context for Lying: Why Is Your Child Lying?
While being lied to triggers feelings ranging from frustration to fury, it is important to understand that children’s lying is not necessarily a crisis of morality or a sign that they will lead a life of deception. Children lie, for a variety of reasons, and trying to eradicate lies altogether is futile. Instead, when your child does tell a lie, identify why— ask yourself what is he trying to prevent, gain, or protect? — and address that question.
Children typically begin to lie between 2 to 4 years old, a stage in their development that signals a deeper understanding that their thinking is different than yours (an ability called theory of mind). This heightened independence and perspective-taking also creates the foundation for the ability to experience empathy. Young children may also engage in embellished story-telling, confusing fantasy, imagination, and wishes with reality. This is a normal part of young children’s development, a way for them to test their attention-seeking powers and ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Rather than correcting your child’s version of reality or labeling her story a “lie,” support her imagination by simply stating that you recognize the line between fantasy and reality: “What a great story! I bet you wish your dolls could talk to you like that,” or “You have a wonderful imagination! Now tell mommy what really happened today.”
Older children often lie to prevent your anger or avoid punishment— i.e., lying about completing homework assignments or breaking a rule. Understanding the goal or purpose of the lie will enable you to get to the root of the problem, which is a more productive place for you to spend your time. Research shows that punishing lying is much less effective than addressing the underlying reason for the lying. Addressing your child’s inability to complete homework assignments or his need to be perfect so as to not disappoint you are better ways to stop the lying than punishing him for being dishonest about his inability to manage these very real problems.
Be a Truth-Telling Role Model
One of the most effective ways to teach your child truthfulness—and just about any other life skill—is to model it. I challenge you to take a week to count how many lies you tell, and I am including those little white lies. Research shows that adults lie at least once per day (and there are plenty of studies that found the number to be much higher). While I am not arguing against telling a little white lie now and then—does your best friend really need to know that you hate her new haircut?—I am recommending that you watch how often you are telling any kind of untruth in front of your children. Children, particularly those under 8, cannot typically understand the shades of gray in lying, including distinguishing between a “good” and “bad” lie. For them, a lie is a lie. Older kids—preteens and early adolescents—have a finely tuned hypocrisy meter. Don’t expect them to listen to your life lesson lectures if you are not living them. It will be a lot harder to encourage truthfulness if your child hears you begging out of an event because you are “sick,” when you are really going out to dinner with your sister, or if you compliment a friend on her hair and then speak cattily about it once she is out of earshot.