Why children lie and how to keep them honest

If your sweet little liar is up to her tricks again, here’s some expert advice on teaching her that honesty really is the best policy.

So your four-year old daughter’s been potty-trained, but still occasionally has an ‘accident’ when she’s busy playing before bedtime. When you gently reflect on this with her, her response is: ‘Mommy, it was Snoopy [the family dog] who wet me with the hosepipe.’ At night, with no hosepipe in sight? Of course, it’s natural to be concerned about this absurd lie, but is it really a problem?

Absolutely not, according to Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and founder of PsychMatters Wellness Centre in Johannesburg, because lying is completely normal. ‘We need to be honest enough to accept that we all lie,’ she says, ‘and that even children as young as two do so. In fact, lying is a sign of intelligence. Studies have shown that children who lie have better executive functioning skills [skills that enable you to control your impulses and stay focused on a task] as well as a heightened ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, a vital marker of cognitive development known as “theory of mind”. Interestingly, children who struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism have a problem with lying.

ALSO SEE: Could my grade 1 child have ADHD? Here’s what you should look out for

Why do children lie?

It can be very frustrating to discover that despite your efforts to instil morality and honesty in your child, they still lie. However, kids don’t lie randomly, says Joanna: they always have an underlying reason for doing, no matter how lopsided this may be.

Common reasons include:

    • Making their stories more interesting to get more attention/admiration/approval.
    • Hiding something to avoid getting into trouble.
    • Get what they want: ‘At Daddy’s house, he lets me watch YouTube whenever I want to.’
    • Avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
    • Avoid revealing serious issues (such as being bullied or abused by an adult) because they fear they may not be believed, or be threatened or hurt, if they tell anyone about it.

When your child lies, they’re trying to solve a problem in an ineffective way. Your job, says Joanna, is to teach them how to face her problems head on and coach them through these confusing years.

To do that, it’s important to understand your child’s developmental age and stage and their motive for lying.

  • Three- to eight-year-olds are still figuring out the difference between fantasy and reality. They create imaginary worlds and tend to lie more between the ages of four and six. At this stage, your child becomes better at telling lies by matching non-verbal facial expressions and their tone of voice to what they’re saying. They usually own up if you ask for clarification.
  • Seven- to 10year-olds can lie more successfully without getting caught out, although they may find it hard to maintain a fib. The lies also get more complicated, because the children have a better vocabulary and understand more about how others think. They generally lie to test what they can get away with, especially relating to homework or issues with friends.

Keeping things honest

Teaching your child to be honest starts at a very young age, says Joanna. She offers the following guidelines:

  • Watch your words and the way you handle these issues when teaching and disciplining your child. Most children want their parents’ approval and would like to save face when caught doing something wrong, so creating fear through aggressive and punitive responses won’t make them own up to the transgression.
  • Never label your child a liar, as it will create avoidance strategies. Rather remind them of the times they did tell the truth.
  • Always role-model your behaviour on honesty and integrity and mirror the values you want to instil in your kids.
  • Always stay calm when your child tells a deliberate fib and firmly explain that lying isn’t OK. Remind her of the family’s values and its rules about lying.
  • Be mindful of the messages you’re sending. For example, don’t tell them to ‘bend the truth’ when they don’t like the food someone else is serving. Rather tell them to focus on the kindness of the host.

Only a very small percentage of children lie chronically and they’re likely to be aggressive, manipulative, disruptive and have regular trouble with authority figures. ‘However,’ says educational psychologist Zaakirah Mohamed, ‘any lying that’s intentional increases as time progresses or hurts someone else should be followed up, so seek professional help, if necessary’.

Caught in the act

When you’re dealing with a lie, the words you use and the way you handle the issue are pivotal, says Joanna.

Younger children:

  • Play along with your child to encourage her to own up to the lie without a fuss. If she says: ‘My doggy broke it’, say something like: ‘I wonder why your doggy did that?’
  • Applaud your child when they own up to doing something wrong. For example: ‘I’m so glad you told me what happened. Let’s work together to sort things out.’
  • Use fables (for example, Pinocchio) or your own personal stories to illustrate the concept of telling the truth.

Older children:

  • Make private time to talk calmly with your child and tell them how lying makes you feel, as well as how it affects all their other relationships with family and friends.
  • Assure your child that they’ll be safe if they tell the truth when you know they’re lying to protect someone else. Explain that you’ll do everything you can to make things better.
  • Have conversations about lying and telling the truth with your children. For example, ‘How would Granny feel if Dad lied to her?’ or ‘What happens when you lie to a teacher?’
  • Be a role-model for telling the truth and find teachable moments by giving examples of owning up when you’ve made a mistake. ‘I made a slip-up at work today. I told my manager so we could fix it together.’ Also, ensure you never let your child hear you telling a blatant untruth (like getting out of an appointment by calling the person and telling them you’re ill, or signalling frantically to your husband to tell someone on the phone that you’re not in).

The best way to foster truthfulness, says Joanna, is through positive messages by highlighting the benefits of honesty, rather than the drawbacks of lying. Zaakirah agrees. ‘The key is always to try to understand why the child’s lying, rather than jump straight into punishing them. Your child needs discipline, not punishment. If they’re severely punished, they’ll continue lying, as they’ll be too scared to tell the truth. That’s why it’s vital to build a relationship that makes them feel safe enough to trust you with their mistakes.’

Research shows that if you want your child to be open about their transgressions, you need to reassure them that they won’t get into trouble for confessing – and that by telling you the truth, they’ll make you happy.

More about the experts:

Joanna Kleovoulou is a registered clinical psychologist, workshop facilitator, speaker and mentor. She is the Founder of PsychMatters Centre™ in Johannesburg. Joanna completed her Master’s Degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. She also holds a honours degree in Business Management and B.A. in Communications. She is an affiliate member of the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group, and supervises the Bedfordview Victim Support Group on a volunteer basis. Learn more about Joanna Kleovoulou here.

Zaakirah Mohamed is a registered educational psychologist working in private practice and part time at Harambee Youth Employment Accelarator. Her field of interest has always been learning disabilities and school readiness. She has completed her honours research on “teachers’ perceptions of LD” which was published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Learn more about Zaakirah Mohamed here.

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