The Truth About Lying

Teach your children to consistently tell the truth.

“It’s so hard to trust that she’s telling the truth.”

A mom recently asked me for advice on her stepdaughter’s frequent lying. In this case, the mom speculated that since the girl was a “pleaser,” she lied so she wouldn’t disappoint her family in areas such as her performance at school or her social life. These parents had often discussed the importance of honesty with the girl, and they were worried she would get herself in serious trouble if she didn’t change.

It’s an issue that has surfaced fairly regularly in my years of working with families. Kids lie to their parents, and they may not mature out of the habit once they’re old enough to better recognize the morality of lying and telling the truth. How can parents help their kids recognize the importance of telling the truth? Start by getting to the heart of why your child may be lying to you.

Dreaming vs. deceiving

When kids are young, such as in early elementary school, they have vibrant and active imaginations, and they may create some incredible stories or invent imaginary friends. This usually isn’t a reason for alarm unless there appears to be a more serious and sustained disconnect from reality. Healthy fantasy stems from a child’s active imagination, and it is usually done without an intent to deceive, and often without even conscious recognition that the story isn’t true. These kids don’t seek to gain anything from the fantasy other than comfort or perhaps a couple of laughs from their family.

Lying, on the other hand, is a deliberate decision to say something that a child knows isn’t true in order to gain some advantage. A child may lie to parents because he thinks he can escape getting in trouble or cover up for something he’s not proud of. Kids may also lie to get attention, such as trying to impress others in a social situation.

When kids are still in these younger years, telling the difference between fantasy and intentional lying can sometimes be tricky. Parents should ask themselves: Is my child willfully lying to gain attention or to get away with something bad? Or is he using some cute fantasy to get attention? If it’s just silliness, teach your child that making up funny stories can be confusing, and that it’s important to tell the truth of what happened after the story. As kids get older, they’ll grow out of this state. Their creativity matures and they’ll understand the distinction between entertaining fiction and deliberate falsehoods.

If you feel that a child is willfully lying in order to gain an advantage or to get attention from you, then you must deal with the issue differently, yet still directly. Tell him that in your family, everyone tells the truth so that you’re always able to trust each other. As part of your family, he is not allowed to say things that are not true. Then, you must discipline him for lying and attend to the underlying issues prompting him to lie. With lying, as with many areas of misbehavior, it’s essential for children to clearly understand their parents’ expectations for behavior, as well as what consequences for disrespecting those expectations.

When lying gets real

There is a tricky balance here. Parents can become afraid to discipline lying because we fear that if we do, then we will encourage kids to lie more in some situations so they can escape that discipline. Many times, we see it as “soft” disobedience, like perhaps a child is just mistaken in his words. I think this is an unfortunate effect of a culture that sees deception as just another tool to get our way. That’s why it’s so important for parents to not lie to their kids, to nurture a home where the truth is honored even when it’s uncomfortable.

We cannot allow lying to be accepted in our homes, because every good relationship is based on honesty. Good parents must establish rules about lying. That means that we treat lying like any other misbehavior. We gently reprimand kids when we catch them lying, and then we ensure that something happens that will make lying not worth a child’s while. It is important when disciplining a child that we make the consequence unpleasant enough that she doesn’t want to have to endure it. No, the consequence isn’t cruel, painful or mean, but it does mean that she must be motivated to want to avoid it because it is not pleasurable. Does she like playing on her iPad, going to friends’ homes or going to gymnastics? Once you figure out what will really bother her if you take it away, then you have found your consequence. Lying is a serious issue; so don’t be too light on her. If she lies to you, then she must know that something very fun will be taken away for several days.

Sometimes parents can’t seem to get past this issue because their kids don’t really doesn’t mind the consequences their parents implement. These kids know the stakes, and they simply continue lying to their parents because they know they can endure the cost. Kids need a real motivation to avoid the consequences, and this can only happen if parents make those consequences tougher.

Lying in the teen years

As kids get older, and there is generally little doubt that a lie is a deliberate decision, it’s important to recognize that there are some different reasons tweens and teenagers lie to their parents, beyond the expected lies that a child may use to avoid getting in trouble. When older kids lie, they may actually be lying to get your attention. Some teenagers can be so desperate for attention that they do something that will shock their parents — getting caught for lying or some other misbehavior — because they think that negative attention is better than none at all.

Teens may also lie to their parents because they’ve observed something very practical about the world they live in. Unfortunately, our kids often see lying modeled in our culture as an acceptable way to escape embarrassing or unpleasant situations. Worse, lying seems to just work for friends and even family members.

Another reason teens may lie is because they are angry or frustrated over some challenging circumstance, and they’re inwardly afraid to reveal those emotions, so they lie about facts that may be uncomfortable or embarrassing. They may also “get back” at people they are angry with by lying to them or about them.

Parents should use their best judgment — sometimes it’s just a gut instinct — to figure out why and when a teenager is lying. In the case of the mom who was so worried about her stepdaughter’s lying, I wondered if perhaps the girl was lying to get attention, that she was acting out of anger. The “pleaser” theory didn’t sit right with me. Pleasers usually don’t want to disappoint loved ones, so they don’t normally express anger through deception for fear of alienating the loved one. But this girl had plenty to be mad about. Children who have suffered through divorce deal with a lot of pain — confusion, loneliness, anger — and often don’t know what to do with those feelings. Lying to parents is not an unusual response.

A parent’s response to a teen lying needs to be bigger than simply reprimanding her or punishing her for lying. Parents should talk with their teen about how she’s feeling. Sitting down and empathizing with teens goes a long way toward building the sort of trust where teens feel they can tell you the truth consistently. Sure, kids may not want to engage with their parents, but it’s important to keep at it. Kids need to know that our job as parents is to help them, not harm them. They need to see their parents as teammates and trusted advisers who have their back. Work on the relationship. That’s the best way to get the lying to stop.

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