With Dr. Angharad Rudkin, Child Clinical Psychologist and Author
While honesty is an admirable trait, it’s human to be imperfect, which includes not always living up to the most desirable standards. The truth is, everyone bends the truth. Nearly all children will omit details, exaggerate, or tell untruths at some point, and it can be difficult for parents to know what to do when this happens. Understanding the reasons behind lying and learning how to react appropriately can help build more trust throughout the whole family.
If “I didn’t do it!” is a familiar phrase in your household, you may be eager to know how to approach the issue so that this behaviour doesn’t turn into a habit. Clinical psychologist Dr. Angharad Rudkin, co-author of the parenting book “What’s My Child Thinking?” spoke with us to discuss the developmental cause of lying. Dr. Rudkin shared useful strategies on how to react when your kids act like Pinocchio.
A Necessary Developmental Phase
You might associate lying with “naughty” behaviour, but it helps to view it as a landmark in your child’s thinking skills. It’s actually a reassuring thing, and is evidence that your child’s brain is developing in the way that it should. As kids get older, they recognise their ability to tell a story that may differ from reality. Whereas a two year-old is unable to lie, three year-olds certainly can. This change reflects a big cognitive shift, and is an important part of development.
You’ll notice the difference in lying as your kids age, in that little kids will fall apart if pressed for information, whereas older kids are more sophisticated in their ability to maintain an untrue story, even under questioning. Rather than seeing this as solely a negative, it can be useful to shift your perspective to see it as a landmark in your child’s thinking skills. In order to tell the difference between truth and fiction, your kids need the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes.
The Why Behind the Lie
Rather than focusing purely on the lie itself, it can be helpful to look into why your child lied in the first place. Children are eager for parents’ approval, and lying can sometimes be a means to gain ‘reputation management’. All people make mistakes, and sometimes kids lie to avoid criticism and protect themselves from being seen in a negative light.
Generally, there are two main types of lie:
When a kid does something they know is against the rules, they might lie to avoid punishment, which could include pointing the finger at someone else. Anti-social lies are done purely for self-serving reasons, usually as a form of self-protection. It’s because of this that this sort of lying is seen as negative.
Signs of Anti-Social Lies
- The story doesn’t add up or make sense, and isn’t consistent
- Your kiddo rabbits on and on, using more words than necessary to convince you
- Your little one’s voice may get higher pitched
What are the triggers?
- A fear of getting in trouble
- Breaking a rule
- Wanting to get someone else in trouble
- Trying to avoid blame
How to Handle an Anti-Social Lie
- Understand the development behind it. Kids up to age 3 or 4 may not yet fully understand the difference between fantasy and reality, or might be indulging in wishful thinking.
- Explain that you have a better chance of resolving an issue when working with the truth.
- Make it clear that you will approve more if your kids are honest, and it’s the best way to make amends.
- Agree as a family that honesty is a shared value in your household, and explain how frequent lying can result in others not believing you even if you do tell the truth.
- Keep discipline to a minimum. If kids are terrified of the consequences, they’ll be even more likely to lie.
When a kid lies in order to spare another person’s feelings or maintain social expectations, it’s called a pro-social lie. Often this is done by omitting information and not giving the whole story, in order to be kinder or more polite. These sorts of untruths usually benefit the lie-recipient, and are viewed largely as acceptable.
Signs of Pro-social Lies
- Other parents ask you about things your kids have bragged about
- Your kiddos give short or incomplete answers to questions
- Your kids give contradictory answers in an attempt to keep you happy
What are the Triggers?
- Wanting to avoid the inconvenience of adults’ rules
- Wanting to impress peers and parents
- Trying to protect another person’s feelings (which is a sign of a socially aware child)
How to Handle a Pro-Social Lie
- Explain the consequences. For example, if your kids tell their classmates about an upcoming trip to Hawaii (when there is none), explain that friends won’t believe them anymore if they keep lying.
- Role model honesty. Kids absorb what they see, so if you tell “white lies”, they’ll learn it’s socially acceptable to do so.
- Build your kid’s self worth. Kids who don’t feel good enough about themselves may exaggerate to appear “better”.
- Set achievable expectations. If you set the bar too high, kids may lie in order to avoid disappointing you.
- Trust your kids. Kids are more likely to be honest if they have a good reputation to live up to.
When it comes to lying, it’s best to avoid huge punishments. If you make the consequences catastrophic, it’ll only lead to more lying to avoid getting punished. Natural consequences are the preferred choice, and a far better way to help a child learn. For example, if your little one lies about having done their chores, work together with them to come up with an age-appropriate task to help out around the house, to make up for the mistake.
A Family Agreement
It can be a good idea to sit down together as a family and discuss your shared approach to lying. Have an open conversation and outline what is acceptable and not acceptable, so kids know what your expectations are. Remember that if you set up a lot of rules and expectations, you may have to accept that there will be more lying. Kids won’t be able to live up to an unforgiving set of very strict rules. You can value honesty and truth and make this clear to your kids, but you also must address the fact that we’re all human, and we all make mistakes.
Share Your Shortcomings
Kids will trust you a lot more if you’re open and honest about your faults, too. Nobody’s perfect, and there’s no use in pretending to be. Chat to your kids about times you’ve messed up, and how you dealt with it. Talk to your kids about how it feels to lie, and how you’ve felt when you’ve lied. Do they feel better when they’ve told a lie, or does it feel better to tell the truth? Above all, try not to get cross with your kids if they end up doing something that you yourself would have done.
Encourage your kids to think about what truth and lies mean to them, and what truths and lies we all engage in every day. Talk about it, and approach it all with curiosity rather than judgement. Don’t assume your kids are lying or telling the truth. Just go in with curiosity, and don’t make your kids feel rotten about themselves if they’re caught in a lie. Instead, approach mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.
Speaking with Angharad reminded us that a lot of our reactions as parents may have to do with our own associations with lying. When our kids lie, it can make us feel out of control, which can lead to panic and over-reacting. Remember that lying doesn’t define the person. Just because your kids fib sometimes doesn’t mean they should be labeled as ‘dishonest’. As long as we remain open, honest, understanding and approachable, managing the times when our kids aren’t truthful can be a part of life’s many teachable moments.
Dr. Angharad Rudkin is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She has worked with children, adolescents, and families for over 15 years. Angharad has an independent therapy practice and teaches Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Southampton. She regularly contributes to articles on child and family wellbeing for national newspaper and magazines, and is a relationship expert for Metro newspaper. Angharad appears on TV and radio regularly as an expert on child and family issues. Angharad wrote a book with Ruth Fitzgerald about friendships in girls, “Find your Girl Squad” and has co-written a parenting book “What’s my Child Thinking?”.