How to deal with lying and encourage honesty
Honesty is a trait that is highly valued by adults, so when children lie this can cause real concern for parents. It’s common, however, to be unsure how to handle lying. Parenting expert Dr Victoria Samuel looks at why children lie, how to encourage honesty, and what to do if a child tells tales
All children lie occasionally, but why?
• Very young children do not understand the difference between what is the truth and what is not. Therefore, preschoolers' ‘lies’ often stem from innocent fantasy rather than deliberate deception. Children at this age frequently engage in wishful thinking, for example your little one says he didn’t hit his sister because he wishes he hadn’t, not because he is deliberately fibbing.
• Children often lie in an attempt to hide something they know they have done wrong in order to avoid the shame of disapproval and the negative consequences they anticipate adults will impose.
• Lies may also be used by children to avoid the inconvenience of adults’ rules, for example lying about having completed homework in order to be able to go out to play.
• Children with low self-esteem may embellish the truth, brag or exaggerate in a bid to impress others or in an attempt to fit in with peers. Similarly, children who are feeling insecure may invent scenarios to try to get adults’ attention and interest.
How to encourage honesty
1. Calmly name the issue but don’t demand confessions
Don’t ask questions about behaviour if you already know the answer. Trying to force your child to confess is rarely effective: most children (and adults) will lie to protect themselves when put on the spot.
For a preschooler whose comments reveal a blurring of reality and fantasy, calmly tell them that you know what they are saying is untrue: “I know you’d love a pet cat, so you were imagining we’d got five kittens?"
If you know your child is lying to avoid getting into trouble, calmly describe the problem: “I see you got pen on the wall, how can we sort that out?” If possible, avoid lecturing or criticising your child as this tends to be counter-productive, leading to defensiveness and more lying.
Give your child the chance to make amends, for example if you know they’ve not prepared their bag for school, don’t ask them: “have you packed your bag?” (which just invites a lie). Instead, briefly describe the problem: “I noticed your bag isn’t ready.” Or better still, invite them to take responsibility: “Please show me your bag when it’s packed.”
Never call your child a liar - negative labels such as this can erode self-esteem and lead to self-confirming behaviour. Similarly, it is not helpful to bring up past transgressions such as “this is the third time you’ve lied about this”.
If you catch your child telling a blatant lie, tell them you know they’re not being honest: “I know that isn’t true. It’s normal to worry about telling the truth if we’re afraid we’ve done something wrong, but lying isn’t helpful. Let’s see what we can do solve the problem”
2. Try to understand why your child is finding it hard to be honest
It’s important to think about why your child feels they need to lie. Perhaps your child lies about the marks they got at school because they're feeling overly pressurised to achieve. Or if your child repeatedly lies about their actions to avoid discipline, perhaps the consequences you are using are so severe that your child is too afraid to tell the truth. Remember that consequences are about teaching a child, not inflicting distress.
Once you’ve identified potential reasons for your child’s fibbing, encourage them to talk about their worries by calmly raising the issue in a supportive and warm manner: “It seems it’s really important for you to get good marks. Do you worry about disappointing us?”
3. Teach your child about why lying doesn’t work
Teach your child about the importance of telling the truth, and how lying can stop people believing them even when they are being honest. A good way to do this is to read books with your child which give a clear message that lying is not helpful; 'The Boy who Cried Wolf’ is an obvious example. It helps to take time after reading the stories to chat with your child about what he has learnt. Remember this should be relaxed and fun, not a morality lecture!
4. Respond with clear consequences
By around the age of six, children are able to know the difference between truth and lies. So if they lie to try to cover up something they’ve done, it may be helpful to give consequences, both for the lying and for the behaviour they are attempting to conceal. Make it clear to your child that honesty will get your approval and mean they get off more lightly.
This approach means that if your child does something wrong they’re less likely to take the risk of covering up with a lie. Again, remember that consequences should not be overly severe as this may push your child to lie to protect themselves.
5. Set a good example
Remember that children learn more through watching other people’s behaviour than through any other form of direct guidance or discipline. Unfortunately this means that if you’re prone to being economical with the truth, be it mouthing “I’m not in” when your mother-in-law rings, or by taking a few years of your child’s age when buying a bus ticket, you will inadvertently be teaching your child that lying is acceptable.
6. Praise honesty
Always be encouraging and positive whenever your child tells the truth and praise them for being honest: “Thank you for telling me you broke the glass. I really like it when you’re honest”.
If your little one is going through a phase of frequent lying, set up a reward system so that she gets a sticker every day there are no lies. Agree in advance that she will get treats once a certain number of stickers have been gained.
Find out more
The Parent Support Service provides practical, professional guidance for common parenting concerns.
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