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Children and lying: Age appropriate advice

What should you do when you catch your child lying? Author and therapist Dyan Eybergen explains why children lie and gives age-appropriate tips on teaching your child the importance of honesty.

Fingers Crossed

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.

4 Tips for teaching honesty

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.

Tip #1: Young children need guidance and reinforcement about telling the truth.

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.”

Tip #2: Instead of concentrating on getting to the truth of every matter, concentrate on the problem itself.

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.

Tip #3: Concentrate on instances in which the child does tell the truth — no matter how small those truths might be.

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

Tip #4: When it comes to the really big stuff, give the message that telling the truth gets the child a free card out of parent-imposed trouble.

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

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