Parents are understandably keen that their children grow up to be honest, upstanding, and truthful...... But realistically, it is too simplistic (as well as somewhat hypocritical!) to tell children not to lie.
The ability to lie is an essential social skill and children need to learn how and when to lie, and it’s also important they learn how to differentiate between being told a lie and being told the truth themselves.Under 3 years old, children are not sufficiently sophisticated to deliberately deceive, instead they are simply experimenting with links they have made between the what they say and what happens afterwards.
For example, a young child learns that when she says she does not need to go to the toilet, she does not have to go and can therefore continue playing. So when she is keen to keep playing and doesn’t want to be interrupted by being taken to the toilet, she tries saying she doesn’t need to go to in order to avoid having to go, even when she may well need to go!
Another example is when a child is caught red-handed – or covered in chocolate or biscuit crumbs...... They have already realised that licking the icing of the cake is going to cause trouble. They already know they wish to avoid the trouble, so they try saying they didn’t do it, simply in order to avoid the trouble.
Overall, it is helpful to understand that to catch your child lying does not necessarily mean they are destined for a bad end!
1) If you suspect your child is lying to you, the best approach is to be empathetic rather than accusatory or threatening. Using age-appropriate language, try something like “Telling the truth is really tough. Perhaps you are worried about what I am going to say. Would you like to have another go to explain what happened?”
2) Whenever a child who has developed a habit of lying does tell the truth – even about something seemingly insignificant - make sure you notice and praise them specifically for doing so. This makes them (and you!) realise that they can be honest and motivates them to do more. Try something like “When you told the truth just now, it was brave OR that was the right thing to do and it meant there was no argument and we all stayed calmer.”
3) Make sure you don’t get caught out yourself! Be truthful with your child, or they will learn that you can’t be trusted. Depending on age, you can explain about the grey areas of “fibs” and “white lies” that prevent people’s feelings getting hurt, or ease difficult situations, but don’t deceive them.
Melissa Hood is founder of The Parent Practice and mother of three. A skilled therapist, providing parents with the right tools to improve and enjoy family life promoting happy childhoods and a brighter futures. She and her team deliver tailored training and consultations to enable parents to bring out the best in their children.