How To Reduce Lying and Increase Honesty

Sep 29, 2022

We have all been there, you see your child breaking a rule and when you address it with them, they look you directly in the eyes and say it wasn’t them. As parents, we tend to find lying particularly triggering. This can become frustrating when this behavior continues, despite emphasizing that they will get in more trouble for lying than the original behavior. Sound familiar?

 

Developmentally, research shows that children typically tell their first lie around the age of 3, which develops along with language skills. Don’t panic!! This just shows this is a common occurrence for all people and families. We are here to help support your family in the pursuit of honesty and integrity.

 

First, let's break down the different types of lies.

 

  1. Self-preservation. This is the most common form of lying. Most of us want to avoid consequences or punishment. For example, have you ever been pulled over and the police officer asked you a question like, “Did you see that stop sign back there?” or “Do you know what the speed limit is?” Even if the answer is yes, you may find the word “no” tumbling out of your mouth quickly, in hopes maybe they will let you off the hook. Similarly, sometimes your child is not thinking about it in another context other than avoiding a consequence.
  2. Lie of omission. This is simply leaving part of the story out, typically also to minimize one’s own role. For example, your child coming to you and telling you that their sibling hit them, but leaving out that it started because they first took their sibling’s toy.
  3. The tall tale. There are a lot of reasons for these types of lies, but typically they are to gain attention, to inflate their self-esteem, or to make them appear more impressive or special. For the early part of childhood, they are also trying to separate their imagination from reality. In kindergarten, my daughter told her teacher we had a pet monkey and that her dad competed in the Olympics. I literally have no idea where either of these came from.
  4. The social lie (e.g. “little white lie”). This lie is nuanced as at times we view this as “prosocial” behavior, meaning this is not only accepted, but encouraged. For example, we specifically teach our children to lie in order to protect someone’s feelings, such as telling someone they liked a gift they were given, even if they did not.

*Because this is nuanced, parents will need to discuss differences as their child reaches different developmental levels. Clearly there is a level of etiquette and sensitivity here as we also do not want our children loudly exclaiming all of their opinions or observations, even when they are true!

  1. The imitated lie. This occurs when our children imitate lying behavior they see in adults. Common examples may be telling your child to lie about their age to get cheap or free admission or still qualify for those “kids eat free” nights at a restaurant.

 

So, what can we do about lying?

 

First, it is important to understand that all children lie (and let’s be honest, us as adults too). This does not make lying permissible or allowed, but parents should have the expectation that it may happen and it needs to be addressed with love rather than intense punishment. We tend to see a pattern that when parents react with intense or harsh responses, kids just try to hide their mistakes more.

 

Here is what we want you to keep in mind while reading through these strategies – the goal is for your child to view you as a “partner in problem-solving.” We are establishing the foundation for your child to come to you when they make mistakes, instead of hiding them and being filled with shame. Remember, we are thinking long-term – will they tell you about mistakes when they are 13? 16? 18?

 

  1. Acknowledge and focus on truth-telling. Provide words of encouragement when your child tells the truth. Focusing on positive behavior encourages more to follow and teaches better skills.
    1. For example, “Wow, I know that took a lot of courage for you to tell me that you broke the lamp. Thank you for being honest. Let’s see how we can fix this.” Or, “Thank you for being honest that you started the argument/fight with your sibling. What do you need to do to fix it?”
  2. Give your child opportunities to build trust and state your belief in them.
  3. Let children observe your honesty. Avoid lying for instrumental purposes, such as lying about a child’s age to get a lower priced movie ticket.
  4. Don’t lie to encourage compliance. Such as, “If you don’t come with me now, you will have to live at the park forever!”
  5. Avoid setting up your child in a situation that pushes them into lying. Rather than questioning them about whether they did or did not do something, simply make a statement and focus on resolution. Let’s take this scenario - you have asked your child to wipe down the kitchen counters, but notice they are still dirty. You could handle it in two ways:
    1. You could ask, “Hey, did you wipe down the counters?” Your child most likely will panic and say yes, and maybe even plan to go do it right away. Since you already know they did not, you likely will then launch into a lecture about how you know they did not do it and are very disappointed with them for not being honest.
    2. Or, you could try this, “Hey, I noticed you haven’t wiped down the counters yet, can you go take care of this?” And then your child can say, “Oops! Sorry! I’ll go do it now.”
  6. If it is an attention-seeking lie, it is best to ignore it completely as to not provide your child with attention he desires. Instead, we should be filling up that so called “attention bucket” so they get this need met in healthy ways (we give lots of ideas for this in our Parenting 101 course!)
  7. If telling a “tall-tale,” simply point out the behavior and have them try again (e.g., ‘Hey, this sounds like a tall tale, why don’t you try again and tell me what really happened?)
  8. Explain truth-telling in developmentally appropriate ways. Sometimes things are not black and white. For example, we give compliments when someone asks something like “Do you like my haircut?”

 

We love using books to help discuss issues and help children understand! Here are some books you can consider reading to your kids:

  1. Teach Your Dragon To Stop Lying by Steve Herman
  2. Dishonest Ninja: A Children’s Book About Lying and Telling the Truth by Mary Nhin
  3. The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown
  4. The Berenstain Bears and The Truth by Stan & Jan Berenstain
  5. But It’s Not My Fault by Julia Cook

 

Good news? While lying is common in children and adults, research studies show that lying decreases significantly between the ages of 10 to 16. The goal of these tips is to make the relationship with your child strong so that they come to you later in life, with big issues where they really need your wisdom and guidance.

Please note, lying still results in consequences sometimes. But we can remain calm and composed, acknowledge how hard it is to admit your wrongdoing, and move forward with the natural consequences of their actions.

Want more tips for better parenting? Check out our online Parenting Course!

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