Children and Lying

Most parents like to think their children are special. So, it can come as a surprise when parents discover the extent to which their children are telling lies. But, research shows that lying, even to one’s parents, is a natural part of growing up.

In fact, research shows that infants start misleading their parents very early in life. Infants mislead their parents through fake cries, concealing mistakes, and pretending to be injured, just to name a few (see report on research and infants).

Between the ages of two to three, children start lying when they break established rules (see Evans & Lee). By age five children get quite adept at being able to successfully lie to others (see Lewis). Not only are children predisposed to using deception, but more often than not, children learn this behavior at home.

Children watch their parents lie (see Saxe) and they are explicitly taught to lie by their parents (see Ekman).

What parent has not lied to a child in order to prevent him (or her) from knowing an unpleasant truth (“everything will be ok”), or taught their children to lie to someone they love (“tell grandma how much you love the gift”) or instructed a child to lie on their behalf (“tell them I’m too busy right now”)?

For better or worse, parents teach their children how to lie and then get upset when their children use deception for their own purposes.

In fact, children are quick to learn that lying can be useful when trying to avoid punishment, create a better image, influence other’s behavior, or form their own identity.

Children, with higher IQs, who are more socially outgoing, or who are raised in a controlling family environment are more likely to use deception.

Unfortunately, deceptive behavior tends to increase over time, especially during the teenage years, when children are trying to assert their independence. And to make matters more complicated, teenagers tend to put rewards ahead of risks, causing them to act more carelessly (and often more deceptively) than parents would like.

The challenge parents face is how to sets limits without creating a hostile, controlling environment—an environment where deception is more likely to be used (see how to get others to be honest).

Using a severe style of parenting, by overreacting (nonverbally) and dishing out harsh punishments, tends to be counterproductive. Children lie to avoid the consequences of their actions; so raising the stakes typically leads to more deceptive behavior.

If you discover your child is lying, it helps if you can remain calm. And it helps to focus on the underlying issue. What issue is your child lying about?

Try to talk to your child about the issue at hand and make an attempt to understand his (or her) point of view. After you have tried to see the situation from his (or her) point of view, make your own point of view clear in a non aggressive way (see talk about problems).

Focusing on a child’s use of deception, rather than focusing on the underlying issue, often diverts time and energy from addressing the real problem—only making it more likely that the deceptive behavior will happen again.

It also helps to remind your children that it is your responsibility as a parent to provide structure by setting rules and limits on what is acceptable. And it helps to tell your kids that you value honesty in your relationship with them.

While this method is far from full proof, if used consistently, it often leads to better outcomes in the long run.

But, if you are dealing with a child who lies even when there is no reason to lie (see compulsive lying), or a child, who is constantly putting themselves at risk, seeking out professional help may be the wisest course of action.

More Resources:

Truth About Deception – back to our home page.

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