When my oldest child was 3 years old, he got into a chocolate pie that was in the fridge. A 3-year-old sized handprint was sitting in the middle of the pie. My son had chocolate smeared on his face, his belly, and, of course, his hands. When questioned, he denied touching the pie or taking any. Why would he lie about this? The evidence was clear and yet he told me to my face that he did not get into the pie.
Why do our children lie to us? Especially, why lie when the answer is so obvious?
Counselors, psychologists, and developmentalists point to lying as developmentally healthy as it is a mechanism through which children test the boundaries between fantasy and reality, learn consequences, and begin to learn perspectives of others while linking reactions to actions.
Testing the boundaries
Parents provide the initial framework of a child’s sense of safety and morality. Our job as parents is to pass along the safety aspects, like teaching them not to touch a hot stove because it is hot. But we also teach them through how we react to lying. This boundary testing will also teach children how far they can attempt to take a story and how believable their stories are. Through this, they become able to anticipate reactions and consequences as their sense of right and wrong becomes more clear.
Children are like sponges, always learning and developing their view of the world. As their morality develops, they begin to make connections between actions and discipline. How parents manage their reaction to lying will teach the child to simply be honest or to lie better. If the punishment is extreme, kids will get better and more believable at lying as a result.
Developing the ability to see a situation from the perspective of someone else is called, in counseling terms, developing a theory of mind. This is defined as the ability to anticipate what another person thinks or feels and to understand that other people’s beliefs and feelings are different from their own. Theory of mind development also affects development of empathy, as the child learns not only to see the parent’s side of the situation when they lie, but to consider how they feel about it.
So why lie?
According to many psychologists and therapists, children learn to lie and frequently do this for many reasons:
- Trauma and abuse. Abused or traumatized children may lie to cover up the abuse, lie about their experiences, or fear telling the truth to adults.
- Anxiety. Children with anxiety related diagnoses may lie because they are worried about the consequences of telling the truth.
- Low self-esteem. Some children lie because they worry people won’t like them if they know the truth.
- Personality disorders. Very rarely, children with a personality disorder such as borderline personality or antisocial personality may lie as a part of their diagnosis.
- Other mental health issues. A variety of other mental health diagnoses may cause children to lie. For example, a bipolar child might behave in ways they regret during a manic episode, then lie about the behavior.
The Parent vs Parent trap
Almost every parent shares this experience: our children come to us to ask for something—permission to do an activity, go somewhere, etc.—and we tell the child no, thinking that the subject is dropped from there. Having not received the hoped-for response the child then turns to the other parent looking for a different response. Is this dishonest of the child?
Statistically speaking, continued and pathological lying tends to occur more frequently in children whose parents are divorced and/or in conflict. According to studies conducted to learn and understand the effects of divorce on children, it was found that especially for children of parents in conflict, lying comes more readily because they have learned to manipulate their parents to get what they want. According to a TEDx talk on the effects of divorce on children, the level of conflict between parents in a co parenting or conflictual parenting relationship, can profoundly impact children and their level of honesty. They may lie to manipulate one parent or the other, using the conflict to achieve the results they want, or they begin lying to ally themselves with one parent out of fear of abandonment. This generally happens with the custodial parent with whom they mostly live with.
Parents in the co-parenting relationship should strive toward peaceful relationships with one another and avoid bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the child. When this bad mouthing occurs, we send the message to our child that one half of who they are is not good and we unintentionally place pressure on the child to align themselves with us and to avoid the other parent. This is sometimes known as Parental Alienation Syndrome. Intentionality maintaining peace with the other parent, not overtly showing personal dislike for the other parent and being consistent with household rules and expectations can alleviate the pressure a child may feel to lie to align with one parent over the other.
Teens and lying… exerting control
Lying in teenagers may occur for reasons other than fear of consequences. One of the most common lies relates to homework completion. Our teen may say they have already completed it or that there was no homework today. The teen is attempting to make their own choices regarding homework because there are other things going on that they would prefer to do, they are struggling with understanding the concepts in the homework but are ashamed to ask for help, or they simply do not want to do the work. In either case, the best response is to have a civil conversation about the consequences of lying and how communication can be more effective in the future. Coupling this conversation with clear consequences, such as taking away freedoms and allowing them to earn them back, can be highly effective. One author suggests offering a choice to complete a punishment, like cleaning their room, or a reduced punishment if the teen is willing to admit to whatever the issue is and their part in it.
Yes, even adults lie
For adults, lying is often done to spare someone else’s feelings. A spouse might tell his wife that she looks beautiful even though the wife seems to be eating more for four rather than two while pregnant and has obviously gained too much weight. To express concern about the weight gain might hurt her, so he tells her she looks beautiful and wonderful instead. Other reasons for lying may be in the form of agreeing with someone to maintain peace, or even to avoid feeling burdensome to someone else, like when we say we are fine when the reality is we are struggling mentally and emotionally. Regardless of the moral reasoning behind the lie, the intention is not misdirection or deceit, rather it is a means to keep the peace.
How to respond to lying?
This leads to what is hopefully the next most obvious question… When we know the answer to the question we are asking our children, why do we ask? Are we as parents setting our children up to lie in response? In the case of my child, the answer was already obvious. My son had chocolate all over him. So, did I need to ask him if he took some of the pie or did I set him up to lie to me?
Talwar and Lee (2008) explain that the motivating factor in a child between 3 and 8 years old is fear of punishment. As a child’s theory of mind develops, and as they grow in their understanding of the world, children learn right and wrong. I feel certain that my son knew he was not supposed to get into the pie, however, his fear of being in trouble for getting into the pie anyway arose after he did it. There was an element of the unknown.
Perhaps his thought processes went something like “What will happen since I got into the pie? Mom looks angry that I did it. Previous punishments when I do something wrong have involved sitting in timeout. I hate timeout and do not want to have to sit there.”
According to research, how you respond to a child lying depends largely on the age of the child. As we have seen, theory of mind and moral development factor into understanding right and wrong in relation to telling lies and therefore the response should be based on what the child understands about lying.
One therapist suggests that rather than asking a child if they have broken the rules when the evidence suggests they have, a parent might simply talk about the broken rule. This helps a child to understand boundaries, rules, and expectations of them. In my case, clearly my son was covered in chocolate pudding and had been in the pie. Asking him about it resulted in a fear response that included lying, though he did not understand at the time that lying is wrong.
Another recommendation is praising your child for being honest. Providing praise for making a difficult choice like that reinforces the desire for truthfulness as the child will feel good about themselves because of the praise they received. As with all parenting choices, praising and rewarding the right decision is using positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement plants the message in the child’s brain that honesty is a behavior to repeat. However, if we are being honest with ourselves, we know our children may still choose to lie. When you catch them in a lie, telling a story often can get your point across better than punishment. One story idea is “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or “George Washington and the Cherry tree”. For Christian parents, there is the Veggie Tales cartoon “Larryboy and the Fib from Outer Space” which details the struggles with how lies grow and change until they are out of control. These stories provide and imply morals related to positive outcomes with honesty and negative outcomes with lying.
In the case of the chocolate pie, I should have gently explained to him that the pie was for everyone to enjoy and needed time to set in the fridge. I could’ve explained to him how getting into the pie meant that others might not get to have some. I might also have been able to include what the consequences are for taking something that does not belong to him, like not being allowed to have dessert now. The idea would not be to shame him into thinking he’s a bad boy, but to see the value in admitting to what he did.
Children growing up in a Christian home and in the church can usually quote the ten commandments given by God. One of those commandments is, “You shall not lie (Exodus 20:16).” So easy to say it. However, lying is something we as Christians struggle with as much as anyone else! We lie or embellish to make ourselves look good, or because we fear consequences for our actions, or because we are trying to avoid confrontation. James tells us that knowing the right thing to do and not doing it is a sin to us (James 4:17). We sin because it is in our nature to do so. We have been granted free will, as humans and creations of God, to choose between right and wrong. By Adam’s sin in the garden, we are aware of the difference between right and wrong. That sinful and flawed nature was passed to all of us, therefore, we have to choose right intentionally and mindfully.