“Did you hit your sister?” “No, I didn’t.”
“Have you cleaned your room yet?” “Yes”
“My homework is finished; can I go outside?”
Everyone does it. Every child tries it out and every adult finds themselves being dishonest every now and then. As adults sometimes we lie to spare feelings, or to avoid doing something that we are not interested in or don’t have the energy (physical or mental) to do. Sometimes we are dishonest with our children, and we may not even mean to be. How many times have you told your child “We will do it tomorrow, or later this week” and that time never actually comes?
As parents we want to raise children who are responsible, caring, and honest. So, when we catch them in a lie, we often get frustrated, angry, or feel disrespected. We are a little more lenient with our toddlers but our empathy, patience, and understanding of lying drastically falls as our children age, often because “they know better.”
And that is true, yes; as our children age, they do know better than to lie, if we have been teaching them about the importance of honesty. So why do our children lie?
Children of all ages are dishonest for a number of reasons, all of which may be understandable if we look at it through the lens of the child.
To avoid a consequence
This may be the most straightforward reason a child has for lying. They simply don’t want to get in trouble for whatever happened and so it is a last ditch effort to try avoid a consequence (even if they know that lying is ultimately going to get them in more trouble.)
To get something they want
Children may be dishonest because they are trying to get something that they want. It may not work but it’s still a tactic to try out.
Because they feel shame or guilt
It is not uncommon for children to lie because they already feel guilt or shame about something that happened. Having to face the truth only increases those feelings for them, especially when they are being interrogated by an adult who may be showing signs of anger toward them.
*It is important for us as parents to recognize this so that our interactions with them do not further shame or guilt-trip them. A child will not learn by being shamed or guilted, it only increases their negative feelings about themselves (and that’s not something we want to instill in them.)
To get out of doing something unpleasant
Most kids don’t want to clean their room or do their homework, so it only makes sense that they may be dishonest as a way of trying to avoid unpleasant tasks.
*An important consideration is that sometimes we as adults have different standards than our children. For us, a clean room may be that there is nothing left on the floor, books are all tidy, and everything is in its rightful place. For a child, they may be saying that they cleaned up, and to them, that is the TRUTH. They did pick up some things, it’s just not to the same standard that we, as adults, have.
Trying out a new behavior
For young children lying may simply be a new behavior that they have learned and are trying out. There is no malicious intent behind it (and honestly, for most kids there isn’t ill-intent behind their dishonesty)
To get attention off themselves
This should come as no surprise to any parent. Often kids lie because they want to divert the attention to someone or something else. Offering an alternative narrative that keeps the focus off of them.
To boost their confidence or self-esteem
Sometimes children will be dishonest, or fabricate things as a means of boosting their confidence or self-esteem. Often we think of lying as a means of avoiding a consequence but lying can also look like the child telling stories or “tales” that are not completely (or sometimes not at all) true.
To gain approval
Children desperately seek the approval of their family, other adults, and peers. If they think that a lie is going to help gain the approval of someone whose opinion matters to them, then it may feel worth it to lie, even if they do “know better.”
Because they speak before they think
Kids have immature brains. In fact, our brains continue to grow until we are in our early 20’s, and unfortunately the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking, planning, weighing pros and cons… well that part of the brain is the last to develop. So, kids just aren’t very good at using that “thinking brain” yet. And when emotions runs high that means they are going to do less thinking and act more impulsively. It’s not something they can really help. But we certainly treat them like they should be able to control it, don’t we?
They are in survival mode
FEAR is powerful and one that many adults do not remember to take into consideration. Often times parents will angrily or loudly exclaim one of two things:
“They have nothing to be afraid of!” (While looking pretty intimidating in the eyes of their child.)
“I’ll give them something to be afraid of!” (Yeah, because that’s really going to help them want to be honest with you.)
When we are afraid our brain becomes focused on safety. This pulls energy and focus in our brain from the frontal lobe (where all of our thinking and reasoning takes place) and draws it down into the LOWEST part of our brain (the brain stem). So when our children are afraid of what reaction we will have or what consequence they will suffer, their focus is not on being honest, it is on doing whatever they can to keep themselves SAFE. That means that some of those reasons mentioned above (trying to divert attention to someone else, denying responsibility to avoid a consequence, etc.) are coming up because they are STRATEGIES to keep them safe from harm.
Now some parents will say, well I would never hurt my child and they know that, this is ridiculous. But, it’s not. Even the safest parent in the world, when angry, is going to trigger those safety alarms in the child’s brain. It’s only natural and it’s out of the child’s control. This is a subconscious process and only YOUR BEHAVIOR can signal to your child’s brain that you are not a threat to their safety.
It can be hard to accept because many of us were raised with generations of fear-based parenting, but we DO NOT want our child to be afraid of us. Research has shown time and again that fear-based parenting does not bode well for the child. It can lead to aggression, poor impulse-control, and low self-esteem among many other things.
So what do we do about it when our child is being dishonest or lying?
First, don’t set them up. What I mean by this is, if you know something to be true, don’t set them up to lie to you. Kids will almost always try to “save face,” and that means being dishonest. Even if they tell the truth afterwards, they will likely lie about it first. So don’t put them in a position where you are inviting them to lie. If you know they didn’t clean their room then don’t start the conversation with “did you clean your room?” This just leads them into a trap where they will most likely say “yes” and then you say “no you didn’t, now you’re lying.” Why do that to them? It elevates stress in both of you and now you’ve set yourself up for a power struggle, or worse, you are (maybe unintentionally) shaming your child.
Second, validate the underlying reason for the dishonesty. When a child feels seen and understood by their parent it makes them feel more connected and safe in the relationship. The more connected and safe they feel, the less likely they are to lie and be dishonest. It is important for emotional health and growth that we help them understand what they are feeling and how that connects to their thoughts and actions. To raise emotionally healthy, emotionally intelligent children, validating the root of behavior (in this case lying) is important for that understanding and growth to take place. How many people go to therapy as adults because they don’t understand why they do the things that they do? You know how we address that? We have parents who help guide us in understanding those things as we grow up.
Third, remain calm. This goes back to that idea that when a child feels fear then they are not focused on being honest, they are focused on staying safe (i.e., out of trouble.) If we can remain calm that communicates to our child’s brain that they are safe. When the child feels safe it will calm their anxiety and nerves and that will bring their prefrontal cortex back online and they can engage in thinking, problem-solving, and discussion about whatever they are being confronted about.
Lastly, allow them to be honest with you. It takes a lot of courage to be honest, especially when a child knows that they have done something wrong and could get in trouble. Often parents jump straight into punishment when a child is dishonest. This can make it scary for a child to be honest and forthcoming. How we react to our children’s decisions, honesty, and dishonesty can make a huge impact on how they bring things to us (or don’t bring things to us) in the future.
If we want our children to be honest with us we need to make them feel SAFE to do so. That doesn’t mean there are not consequences for poor decisions or dishonesty (natural consequences being the best), but rather that we focus on making sure our children feel COMFORTABLE talking to us about the poor decisions or the hard things in their lives.
Our children are only little for a short while. Pay attention to how you interact with and react to them, and keep their developmental capabilities in mind, because you are laying the foundation for your future relationship with them, and for their relationship with others.