All Children Lie, But Why?
“Honest, Mom, I didn’t touch it,” says six-year-old Jillian.
“I washed my hands,” says four-year-old Leo, who just happens to have his hands conveniently behind his back.
“My daddy is a rich man who lives in California,” proclaims David, a nine-year-old who actually doesn’t know anything about his father.
“My mother is going to buy me a new car when I’m a senior,” says 14-year-old Clarice. Her mother is barely scraping by as a single mom and she’s never promised to buy Clarice a new car.
All of these children were lying, but they are not unusual young people. The fact is that all kids lie at one time or another. Sometimes the lie is a simple fib, like Jillian’s, and sometimes it can be a whopper of a lie – like Clarice’s. However, whether it’s a white lie or a great big lie that could have negative consequences for others, all children and teens bend the truth at times. But parents worry when their child tells a lie.
They worry about the future: Will be tell bigger lies in the future? Or they worry about the mental health implications of lies: Does this mean she doesn’t know the difference between the truth and fantasy? And they worry about what a lie might say about their future employability or about their ability to carry on a relationship. After all, relationships – in or out of work — usually depend on trustworthiness.
Why do children lie? The reasons why they tell lies varies according to their stage of development.
Preschoolers have very active imaginations and their ability to differentiate between the truth and fiction isn’t quite where it will be in a few years. Three and four-year-olds tell lots of untruths, but often their lies are related to confusion over what is a wish or fantasy and what is true. Since they are still learning about the differences, you can help that learning process by helping them see the difference. With a preschooler, you can acknowledge the wish or fantasy by saying, “I’ll bet you wish that was true” Or, “Sometimes you might have ideas that you think are true.”
Elementary school-aged children often lie or at least embellish the truth in order to avoid punishment or embarrassment. At this age, it’s better to confront the situation and impress on your child the reason for honesty. In addition, they need to hear how they can correct their behavior.
For example, you could say, “I need you to pay attention when I tell you to always be honest. I prefer that you tell me the truth when you didn’t finish your school work rather than lie to me about it. If you tell me the truth, then I can help you. I can’t help you with your schoolwork if you told me it was finished when it wasn’t.”
Teenagers on the other hand, will lie to enhance their self-esteem, protect their privacy, or avoid the consequences of their testing the limits. With adolescents, it’s often better to cut to the chase and not discuss the lying directly. That is, if your teen went to a friend’s house when she told you she was going to the library to study, you can address that issue directly.
“I know you like to be with your friends and usually I give you permission to go and see your friends. However, I also need to know where you are and what you’re doing. In the future, if you want to do something that you don’t think I will let you do, I still expect you to ask my permission. Then, we can discuss it and we have a chance of working out a compromise. You don’t give us that chance if you lie about what you’re going to do.”
Of course, we always want our children to be truthful, but the truth is that even the most honest child may tell a lie at some times. Depending on the age and developmental stage of your child, you can choose how best to handle it.
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