We all want to have a loving and trusting relationship with our children, so what should we do when our child lies to us? Why do children lie and how can we help them value truthfulness? Gregory and Lisa Popcak and I explored this topic today on their radio show More2Life on Ave Maria Radio. The Popcaks’ show was on the general issue of trust. Trust is, of course, a good thing. We should trust others, but we also need to be prudent. We parents can get freaked out when our child lies to us or somebody else. But I think if we consider why it is that children lie, it can defuse difficult situations and help us handle them more effectively.
Why Children Lie:
- IMMATURITY: Toddlers and preschoolers often blur the line between fantasy and reality: they tell you what they wish was the truth. They say, “My Grandma is coming to bring me a bike” or “I saw a pink elephant in my closet eating my lunch” because they wish these things were true. These lies are not acts of deception.
- AVOIDANCE: Children frequently lie to avoid doing something they dislike, like completing their homework or eating broccoli.
- FEAR: Children often lie because they’re afraid of the consequences of the truth. They lie about hitting their sibling or about crossing the street to get a ball because they know Mom or Dad will be unhappy, angry, or may even punish them. A child with low self-esteem may lie to friends about his accomplishments because he fears he won’t be accepted.
- FRUSTRATION: Older children and teens sometimes lie because they feel misunderstood or they feel our rules are unfair. This frustration weakens the connection between parent and child, and the child looks for ways to take care of himself because he feels the parent is misguided. He stays out late and doesn’t call home, then lies and tells his parents his cellphone ran out of batteries.
What to Do About Lying:
- DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY: Most children aren’t out to hurt us; they’re just trying to meet their needs however feckless their efforts. Basically, they’re trying to avoid the broccoli. They’re unlikely thinking about the larger consequences of their actions or that they might actually hurt somebody with their lie. It’s hard for adults to accept this because we have a more mature perspective (I hope!) and can think through our actions more clearly, but put yourself in the mind of your child and it can help you have empathy for him. I’m not suggesting you excuse the lie, but only that you understand the reason for it.
- PROBLEM SOLVE: For kids who are old enough to reason through things, it’s crucial to talk about why they lied, then try to come up with solutions to their problem together. Try to help them identify the actual motivation for the lie. If a child is lying because she doesn’t want to do her homework, we can help her manage her anxiety about doing the work. If a child is lying because he feels we don’t understand him, then work the relationship. The lie is just a symptom of a connection issue.
- MENTOR YOUR CHILD IN HONESTY: Use the lie as an opportunity to learn together about the virtue of honesty and how important it is to have trust for one another. My 9 year-old daughter recently lied to me about something and I told her that I love her whether or not she tells me the truth, but that if she lies to me a lot I will have a hard time trusting her. We’ve been talking since then about trust and the virtue of honesty: how it fosters harmony and fidelity between people.
While lying is a normal part of childhood, it’s something we parents should take seriously. Lying isn’t a sign your child is headed to prison, but it is a sign that you’ve been given a chance to disciple her in the virtues of honesty, fidelity, and loyalty. Keep it in perspective, pay attention, but most of all, love your kids. That’ll take you far.