Dealing with your child’s little white lies

Nov 30, 2010 at 6:41 a.m. ET

When your child has gotten into the habit of telling little lies, how do you respond? Do you focus on the lie or the partner behavior? Keep reading for advice on how to handle your child's little white lies.

Little girl covering mouth

Unfortunately, lying starts early. By the time they are 3 years old, a majority of children are capable of lying. Whether it's about lollipop or swatting their baby sister, kids abandon honestly for many of the same reasons adults do: to avoid trouble, to make themselves look good, to manage emotions and even to protect others.

Unfortunately, lying is a learned behavior -- one we teach our kids whether or not we like to admit it! When we stretch the truth about where the cookies went or something more serious, like job loss, kids learn to lie from us. So they need to learn how to be honest from us, too.

We may not be able to eradicate lies completely, but we can work with our children to teach them what honestly is, why it's best (most of the time anyway) and strategies for good judgment. Even the very common "little white lies" need to be addressed.

Separate the issues

When dealing with and teaching about these smaller lies, separate the action of lying from what they are lying about.

If, for example, your child lost a library book and then lied about it, saying it was at a friend's house, separate the losing the book part from the lie. Show that if you had known about the lost book earlier, you could have helped look for it -- or maybe you even knew where it was.

Demonstrate how the lie made the situation worse, delaying the finding and returning of the book, increasing the overdue fees and so on. There still may be consequences for the lost library book if it remains unfound -- paying the replacement cost out of allowance, for example -- but the library book and the lie about it are separate issues.

Watch for patterns

When you catch your child in lies, look for patterns. Is it always in reference to one friend? Is there a dynamic with the friendship you need to address? Is it always around a certain difficult emotion? Is there a pattern of little lies building to cover something bigger? These may take more time to discern, even as you address the lies and whatever partner behavior, but patterns can clue you in to the exact issues you need to address -- and they may not be what you think at first!

Be realistic -- and firm

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to completely eliminate lying from our lives. We do it as adults, whether we admit to it or not, and there may be times in your child's life when that little white lie might be appropriate -- so they don't hurt Grandma's feelings about that hideous sweater she gave for a birthday, for example.

Be realistic about this and aim for teaching honesty within the greater context of our society and familial expectations. The lessons will not be learned all at once. It will probably take an entire childhood! You will need to reiterate them again and again. Focus on honesty in your relationships with each other and the values of kindness, responsibility and truth overall and you'll likely be able to get beyond the little lies -- and you'll definitely be able to trust your kids.

Read more about your child and lying