Liar. For so many people, it’s one of the worst things you can call them. Teaching kids not to lie can be tricky because most kids automatically start lying when they don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Here’s some advice on how to address lying as children age.
Toddlers: Don’t Set Them Up to Lie
The first thing you need to know about toddlers and lying is they don’t quite grasp the line between truth and fiction just yet. Typically, the first type of fibs you’ll catch them telling are self-preservation fibs. Maybe they don’t want to get in trouble for something they know they shouldn’t have done so they blame the action on someone else. Maybe they don’t want to put a certain outfit on so they pretend they don’t know where it is. Maybe you saw them yank on the dog’s ear and when you questioned them, they blamed it on a sibling. The best thing to do with kids this age is to not set them up for lies. If you see them pull on the dog’s ear, don’t ask them if they did it. This sets them up for lying. Say, “I saw you pull on his ear and that isn’t nice. That can hurt him just like it would hurt you if someone pulled on your ear, OK?” If they break something, try saying, “This toy was broken and we need to be careful with our things,” instead of, “Did you break this toy?”
Giving toddlers the easy way out is probably not going to end like you want it to – and it may teach them they can lie to get out of trouble in the future. Teach them the difference between things we know versus the things we imagine, and if you notice them straying from the truth, try to stop them and get them back on track, reminding them about the difference between fiction and reality.
School-Aged Kids: Try to Understand First
As children start growing up and their lives become more intricate, so can their lies. If you catch your school-aged child lying, the best thing you can do is try to understand why they lied in the first place and start there. When a child says they don’t have science homework when you know they do, are they lying because they want to play or are they lying because they’re having a tough time in class. Immediately punishing them (unless they’re a repeat offender), probably won’t produce great results. Try saying, “I know you have science homework – why don’t you want to do it? Science can be a tough subject. Do you need help with it?” This is also a good time to teach them the value of giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Let them know that if someone is always truthful, then when something they’re saying is drawn into question, there’s a better chance of being given the benefit of the doubt because they’ve been truthful in the past.
Remember: If you’re understanding of the reasons for why they might lie, they’re more likely to tell you the truth.
Preteens and teenagers: Understand it Will Likely Happen, Know Help Is Needed
This is where honesty versus lying can get complicated. Chances are, you’ll get an occasional lie about grades, what time they’ll be home or chores and these will be frustrating. The best thing to do in these small-lie cases is let them know you’re aware of the lie, explain that it disappoints you and remind them nothing they do would diminish your love for them, so there’s no need to lie.
Let them pay the consequences of those lies by not automatically giving them the benefit of the doubt the next time – sometimes it takes a while for the consequences of lying to register with preteens and teens. Some teens, however, lie frequently and this may be a sign of a larger issue that requires professional help. If your child constantly lies, it may be because of a range of issues, from an anxiety disorder to bullying at school to stress at home.
Lastly, walk the talk yourself. Model integrity. Children learn primarily through imitation. If they see or hear you bending the truth, they’ll think it’s alright for them to do it too.
Dr. Yip is a board-certified pediatrician and co-managing physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Pearland Clinic. She loves to work with kids and is currently accepting new patients. She views herself as a partner with her patients and their parents and derives great satisfaction through interactions with them.