The reasons children lie depend a lot on their ages. Young children do not discern between make-believe and the real world. They will often be guided by their imagination to tell "lies" in an attempt to test boundaries and ensure the security of their environment.
Older children do not necessarily lie to get away with something, either. What they say in response to a demand for the truth may be a variation on what took place based on their perceptions of a situation. Take an adult circumstance -- a car accident, for instance; if there were 10 witnesses, it would be highly unlikely to get the same exact story about what actually happened from all 10 people. The recounting of details would depend largely on an individual's level of observation and how it affected her emotionally.
When children do lie blatantly to cover up the truth, you need to concentrate less on the lie, and more on dealing with the situation at hand. This approach facilitates moral development in children by promoting honesty as a valued choice.
Accept the invitation to enter into their magical worlds and test the validity of their make-believe by asking rhetorical questions: "I wonder if Harold (the child's imaginary friend) is just saying he took your sister's toy because he doesn't want you to get in trouble? If that's right, you can tell Harold it would be okay for you to tell the truth; I will help you deal with the consequence of taking your sister's toy." If the truth isn't forthcoming, impose a consequence on Harold: "Harold will not be allowed to go into your sister's room anymore today; he has to learn not to touch your sister's stuff."
For example, if you think your child ate all the snacks you bought for school lunches but he swears he didn't, don't dwell on getting to the truth. The snacks are gone, and drilling him about whether he was the one who ate them will not make them magically reappear.
Instead, enlist your child's help in figuring out solutions to make the snacks last the week. And don't go out and buy any more school treats. In this instance, the consequence directly relates to the situation. Everyone in the house gets the message that, when the school treats are gone, there won't be any more until grocery day. And, on the off chance that the child did not eat them, and it was a sibling instead, you haven't placed false blame on an innocent child.
Value the child's honesty and appreciate how difficult it was for him to tell the truth when he knows he would get in trouble for doing something he shouldn't have: "I appreciate you telling me that you made crank phone calls with my cell phone. Now you have to make amends for that. What do you suggest?" The child could call the numbers cranked and apologize for his actions.
In situations in which people may be hurt morally, physically or emotionally if the child doesn't tell the truth, you may still have to work together to find solutions to the problem (and natural consequences might follow), but do not impose extra penalties. "It was right for you to tell me that your brother hid and got stuck in the heat duct while playing hide and seek." The scare that something like this inflicts on children would be consequence enough. This way, you highlight the importance of telling the truth and show that you value your child's moral sensibilities.
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