Yesterday a package of gum was missing from mom’s purse. A call to the child sitting on the couch “did you see mommy’s gum” brought the muffled answer, “No, I don’t know about it, I didn’t see it. Maybe Esmerelda (imaginary friend) took it.”
Two minutes later mom discovered the child sticking to the couch by gum laden hair. Why do kids lie even when caught red-handed, or literally “stuck” in her lie, as this one was?
Child experts say the reasons vary with the age/stage of the child. But at all ages, they agree the best thing to do initially is to ignore the lie and focus on what may be behind it…usually not the easy thing for a harried mom to do!
In this case, “I bet you didn’t realize that gum could get so stuck and so messy. Let’s get it out of your hair. And then we’ll talk about how that happened.”
For toddlers aged 3 and 4, the world is so imaginary. Imaginary friends make for great scapegoats or alter egos. Child experts recommend going along with these “friends.” Don’t ridicule, instead accept them into the family. And even use them to help a lying situation. “I bet Esmerelda took the cookies because she didn’t want you to get in trouble? Tell Esmerelda it’s okay for you to tell me the truth. Esmerelda needs to learn not to touch mommy’s purse without permission.”
At this stage, tykes do not see lies as untruths, but more like wishes that he or she did not do the deed.
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
School-aged kids know the difference between reality and fantasy, lying and truth. Lies at this stage are usually to avoid punishment. Especially if punishment has already been given. Kids may fear more of the same and try to prevent its recurrence.
Experts concur that kids really want your love and respect and they fear getting into trouble could risk losing it. So, the most important thing to say to them is “I love you no matter what you have done.”
One trap many parents fall into, including this writer, is sounding like a lawyer putting the child on trial…“Who took this, did you take the cookies, the gum, the….” Experts recommend trying to remain calm. Avoid demanding a confession, and the shame and embarrassment of a cross-examination. This tends to create a cycle of lying to avoid the negative experiences on the witness stand!
Better to say, “I know you took the cookies, and it wasn’t the right time to have them, but let’s talk about how that happened.”
Here are some “truth tips” to get your kids to appreciate the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
- Read the Boy Who Cried Wolf and talk about why telling the truth is important.
- Tell some real stories about how lies have hurt you. “I’d never expect that from you.” Talk about some of your own lies that you regret.
- Play lying/truth game. You give a treat reward to the child for a specified number of truthful answers.
- Give praise, praise, and more praise any time honesty is exhibited. “Thank you for letting me know you took the pie. I really like it when you’re honest and tell me the truth.”