This article by Amanda Morgan originally appeared on her blog, Not Just Cute. It has been published here with the author's permission.
My son cut a hole in his T-shirt the other day. Well, according to him, the scissors were just walking on the counter when they walked right over to him and cut a hole in his shirt. Now, you and I know which scenario is most likely true, but does he? That gets complicated.
Kids are notorious for fibbing. Like most childhood challenges, there are many different reasons behind the behavior.
Truth vs. fiction
Understanding the difference between truth and fiction is a skill that comes with age and experience. Young children often have a difficult time knowing for sure what is fantasy and what is reality. That’s why they love a good fairy tale, become new characters with the simplest of costume changes and embody all the magic of holiday traditions. With the powerful imagination that comes with childhood, young kids are often capable of creating a narrative that is so vivid even they believe it is true.
Sometimes children say what they wish was true. Verbal intricacies may trip them up, taking a hope and turning it into a statement of fact. “Johnny said I could come over.” “Sarah said I could have it.” “Mom said we could do it.” We can validate their desires while still clarifying the facts. “Is that what happened, or what you were hoping would happen?” “I can see that you would want to have cookies for dinner, but I know that ... ”
Many times, if you look behind the tale your child is weaving, they may be hiding shame or embarrassment about something. It’s too uncomfortable to accept the truth, so they create something more convenient. My son’s story is a case in point. Instead of feeling bad about damaging his own shirt (one of his favorites, by the way) he created a story to soften the blow.
Responding harshly only exacerbates the situation when shame, guilt or embarrassment is the motivator. Respond with gentle questions, validation and reinforcement. “I know you wouldn’t want to ______. It doesn’t feel good when we make mistakes, but it’s OK. I make mistakes, too. What’s really important to me is that we tell each other the truth so we can help each other.”
The greater good
Particularly for older children, dishonesty actually becomes a marker of prosocial behavior. As children become aware of the white lies that may be told, even by adults, they start to view lying as a way to save others from pain and disappointment. They’re being polite, or so they may think.
Unfortunately, we often reinforce this when we encourage white lies as good manners. Soon, not upsetting Grandma by telling her there are lumps in the mashed potatoes is on the same moral plane as not upsetting Mom by telling her about a fight at school. As adults, we can help avoid this trap by teaching children how to be honest without being harsh. Didn’t like dinner/the gift/etc.? You can still say, “Thank you. That was so kind of you.”
The most obvious reason kids would lie is to cover their tracks. They don’t want to get in trouble, disappoint or face the consequences, so they create a cover. When we make it clear to children that we would rather hear the ugly truth than a beautifully constructed lie, we give them room for honesty.
Severe responses to misdeeds can also promote dishonesty. I spoke once with a woman who lived in fear of her abusive father. She mentioned that his quick temper didn’t do much to keep her in line, but it did teach her to be a really good liar. She felt she had to be to protect herself and her sister.
Abuse may be on the far end of the spectrum, but when we have an explosive response to mistakes or tend to assign consequences that are out of balance with the behavior, we actually encourage more dishonesty.
So now we understand a bit more about why kids may not tell the truth, the question is what should we do about it? Most experts agree that overreacting or shaming your child will do little to help and may even be counterproductive when you consider the link between dishonesty and shame. Here are a few approaches to consider:
Talk about reality
Regularly talk about truth versus fiction. While reading stories, playing pretend or watching a show, pause now and then and ask, “That’s pretty fun/silly/etc., but could it really happen?” “Is this a true story or a fictional story?” This simple exercise helps kids with understanding what it means to tell the truth, while also helping to build a vital literacy skill.
Allow time for thought and clarity
Sometimes when you catch a child presenting an untruth, the best thing to do is to wait. As my older son wove a tale, I listened with a contemplative “hmm,” honestly trying to decide how to respond. As I bought time for myself, I was unknowingly also giving him the time he needed to clarify things himself. A short pause was followed by, “Well, it didn’t really happen, but it would be funny if it did.” Which I followed with, “Well that makes more sense. I was starting to feel a little confused!”
For older children in particular, just offering think time can untangle the web on its own. If your child needs prompting, sincere comments like, “That sounds a little confusing to me, because I know ... ” will give him the opportunity he needs to straighten things out on his own terms.
Create an honest culture
Make it clear that honesty is a trait that you value. Teach this by example.
Teach it with stories like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," George Washington and that cherry tree, or even better, your own life. Point out honesty and dishonesty and their consequences in books and shows.
Make it clear that you value honesty over perfection. “We all make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time. What matters most to me is that you know you can always tell me what really happened.”
Thank your kids for telling the truth and let them know that you understand how hard it can be sometimes. Remember that kids often lie in an attempt to please you, so emphasize how much happier you are to know the truth than to be saved from bad news.
Avoid lose-lose questions
Too often we set kids up to lie. We know they’ve done wrong and we paint them into a corner. In a sense, we’re almost lying ourselves by pretending we don’t know. We present a lose-lose question: Disappoint me by lying or disappoint me with the truth.
Instead of asking if a child committed the misdeed, state what you know first. “I noticed you had a cookie,” or “I noticed you left your homework here.” Follow up with, “Tell me about that,” or “What do you think should be done about that?”
Developmentally appropriate isn’t always socially appropriate
At the bottom line, we know that lying is a normal part of development. In and of itself, it isn’t cause for great alarm. We also know, however, that when a tool works for a child, the child will continue to use it. The longer they use it, the more it becomes a habit. An obviously tall tale at 4 may not be much cause for concern, but a habit of deceit at 10 may become a huge problem.
Don’t ignore the behavior, but don’t overreact either. Be honest, value and reward honesty, and talk about honesty casually and frequently. Honesty is a virtue, and virtues take time and effort to be established.
Do you have experience with childhood whoppers? What approach do you take?
Amanda Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in both elementary and early childhood education and a Master of Science degree in family and human development. She writes, speaks and consults on the topic of intentional, whole child development and is the creator of the blog Not Just Cute.