Last night, my conversation with my daughter went something like this:
Me: "Did you brush your teeth?"
Me: "Are you sure about that?"
Me: "Why doesn't your breath smell of toothpaste?"
Daughter: "Because I swallowed it all."
Me: "Did you really brush your teeth?"
Me: "Are you telling a lie?"
At least she came clean. And she's hardly the first 6-year-old to lie about brushing her teeth.
Dealing with a lying child is a hugely frustrating part of parenthood. What do you do when they look at you with those wide, innocent peepers — employing eye contact skills a poker supremo would die for — yet you know damn well they're spinning a yarn?
Unsurprisingly, kids mainly lie to get what they want or to avoid getting into trouble. My daughter's lie about brushing her teeth ticks both boxes. She wanted to go to bed without brushing her teeth because, well, sometimes she's lazy, and she didn't want me to know about it because she knew I wouldn't be happy with her (and would probably launch into my "do you want all your teeth to fall out?" rant.)
But not all lies are motivated by selfishness. Children may also lie when it's beneficial for someone else. "As their 'moral reasoning' skills develop, kids realize that their lies can potentially protect others," says Rachel Annunziato, associate professor in Fordham University's psychology department.
A child's age and (perhaps more important) their developmental stage are important factors. "The ability to deceive increases with age and is linked to executive functioning skills (mental organization and regulation), theory of mind (ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. in others) and intelligence," says juvenile forensic psychologist Dr. Denis Zavodny. While young kids (up to around age 5) expect positive feedback when they lie (they focus on gain or avoiding punishment), older kids (around age 7 to 9) typically get more satisfaction from a confession than a lie.
Up to a certain age, lying should be considered no more than an inconvenient but natural part of a child's development. For Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish, there's a definite cutoff point. "When a child is under 7 years, I prefer to avoid the label of 'lying' because of its negative stigma," she says.
When lying is motivated by a desire to avoid taking responsibility, parents may need to take action. "Lying is problematic when associated with frequent or severe conduct problems, especially illegal behavior," says Zavodny.
According to Annunziato, "lying can be a cause for concern when it becomes a habit or when it persists into later childhood and certainly when it is detrimental to others at that point, such as blaming someone else for trouble."
Addressing lying can be a way to engage with your child, suggests Annunziato, leading to a positive conversation reinforcing the idea that lying is wrong while helping them recognize better ways to work through any conflict that triggered the lie. "When we talk to our children about lies, rather than just punish or ignore them, it certainly can be helpful for the development of their moral reasoning skills and also more broadly establishing consistent dialogue with them about difficult subjects," she say.
"The key here is to help the child accept accountability," says Walfish. "Smile gently (without blaming) and say, 'Johnny, you and I both know that you took Sally's toy. Some kids worry that they will be in trouble so they say they didn't do it. We both know what really happened and one day soon you'll be able to tell me the truth and not worry so much about getting in trouble.'"
Your instinct when faced with a lying child might not be to praise them, but this may actually be a productive approach. "Lying lessens when it's safe to tell the truth," says Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and educational advisory board member for The Goddard School. "Explain to your child that it’s OK to make a mistake and that she doesn’t have to lie about it. Remember to praise her for admitting that she made a mistake."
Don't forget that we are always setting an example — good or bad — for our kids. "Be aware that you are under constant scrutiny and the 'innocent' white lie that you can’t make a donation to a charitable organization because you don’t have any cash, for instance, will be noticed by your child," says Pruett. "Remember that the truth starts at home."
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