Why kids (and parents) lie and what to do about it

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Kids sometimes lie

It was a beautiful summer night last week and my 7 year old and 4 year old were playing outside, happily wasting away the time cutting our long unkempt grass with scissors. They both come running in to get ready for bed when I looked over at my 4 year old and gasped. His bangs were all jagged and different lengths. “What happened?” I ask them. “He asked me to cut his hair, Mom, really!”, my daughter cries. “He asked you?” I say incredulously. “I highly doubt that!” “It’s true! He did ask me!” my daughter explained emphatically, on the verge of tears.

Parents lie too

Honesty isn’t only hard for kids, but for parents too. I recently had a conversation with my brother about coming to see him and his family, about a 3 hour car trip away, and I left the conversation thinking things were tentative. In addition, I made this plan without talking to my husband first, who is a reluctant traveler at best. When I finally spoke to my husband about this possible trip, he expressed concerns about traffic, stress, and travelling on a holiday and the fact that he really just wanted to be home and relax. So instead of immediately calling my brother and letting him know, I let the days pass, and assumed that since I hadn’t heard from him, that they didn’t expect us to come down. Feeling a bit embarrassed and ashamed to tell him that we weren’t planning on coming, I emailed him with the news.

Needless to say, he had expected me to be coming all along, and was quite disappointed. I was left feeling horrible about not owning up to what I need to tell him earlier. And truth be told (since that’s what we’re talking about here), in my heart I knew he most likely was expecting us, I just didn’t want to face anyone’s disappointment. I didn’t want to feel bad. If I was honest with myself and with my brother all of this pain could have been avoided. This is a clear example of how my feelings caused my actions, and in turn gave me unintended results.

Circumstance: Told my brother I would come see him
Thought: I don’t want to tell him I can’t go now
Feeling: embarrassed and ashamed
Action: delay telling him and emailing him instead of calling
Result: communication breakdown in our relationship

How lying affects our relationships

I’m lucky that my brother was so understanding, but if I keep doing these types of things in our relationship and don’t take responsibility for my actions, our relationship will be damaged and he won’t be able to trust that I will keep my word. This is what I have been struggling so hard to teach my children about honesty. When I talk to my daughter about why we need to tell the truth, she doesn’t seem to understand. It’s almost like I’m not getting my point across. I explain to her that when we are not honest, our relationship with the person we are lying to suffers. They start to distrust you and then they stop telling you things, or asking things of you, or depending on you to complete a task or do what you say you will do.

In the parent/child relationship, this usually means the parent stops trusting the child to turn the TV off when they are supposed to, or the parent can no longer feel safe in letting the child go outside alone for fear they are lying about staying close to home, etc. The relationship changes, the parents feel the need to reign in control and the child then loses privileges and independence, which is the exact opposite of how we want to parent. We want to be able to decrease our control of kids as they get older, to trust them more, and increase their independence from us.

I found myself questioning why my daughter might be lying more than normal all of a sudden.

What I found was that kids lie for many reasons:

  • They are testing boundaries and want to see what will happen if they lie.
  • They want to please others and feel better about themselves.
  • They want to avoid unpleasant consequences.
  • They want to protect a friend or sibling from getting in trouble.
  • They speak without thinking, impulsively.
  • Younger children lie to express themselves creatively, i.e. stories, or imaginary friends.
  • Older children stretch the truth and tend to keep more secrets from their parents.

All of these reasons are usually healthy unless chronic, but there are ways you can help your child stop lying so much, and to learn why it’s important to be honest.

Ways you can help:

Redirect and ignore

Sometimes kids lie for attention or because they are being creative or they are just testing out what lying is. In this case, it’s ok to just identify that you believe the lie isn’t true and then move on to another task with them.

Give them a second chance

For example, when my daughter tells me that she didn’t cut her brother’s hair and that he did it, I can surmise that she mostly likely isn’t telling the truth. But the way to deal with a lie like this is a little counter intuitive. Since these lies aren’t a chronic problem, I decided to give her 10 minutes to change her story if needed and I came back and asked her again. She changed her story later on, and it was more truthful.

Reduce consequences

Let them know that if they tell the truth, the consequence is not as harsh, and it will help their case for future request of independence. I usually tell my daughter that if she lies often, I won’t be able to trust her to do things on her own as much, but if she owns up, I can forgive and that will pay off later on when she wants something from me.

Help them to understand that making mistakes is normal and it is not something to hide from their parents and teachers. Talk to them before they lie and tell them that it’s OK to make mistakes and that you won’t get upset with them. We don’t expect perfection as parents, so make sure to check yourself and don’t yell or react with anger when our kids make mistakes. They are learning so it’s important we allow them to learn without fear of a bad reaction or criticism.

What NOT to do

In addition, do your best not to call them a liar or blame them for lying. Also, it’s important to not accused them of lying if you know the truth. Tell them you know what happened, that lying is not a good idea, and then discuss better ways to deal with the situation. In addition, labeling your child as a liar will only fuel the lying and lower their self-esteem.

It starts with us

One of the most significant things we can do to help our kids stop lying is to stop lying ourselves, even little white lies. I fall into the trap of when one kids gets something the other one doesn’t, I tell them not to say anything about it to their sibling. Kids notice these lies, and then they might think it’s OK to lie if it avoids hurting others.

Be true to your word to them also. If you tell them you will take them somewhere or give them their allowance every Saturday, or paint their nails after dinner, do your best to follow through. Not only is this a good example, but it builds trust in your relationship.

For you, the parents

Last but not least, think about where you might be running from the truth in your life because it’s too painful to deal with. Do you need to stand up to someone? Set a boundary with your parents? Tell your friend you don’t have the energy to hang out this week? Or just simply acknowledge some of the negative thought patterns you have playing out in your mind and admit that these thoughts are optional and are preventing you from having your ideal life?

Lies that we tell ourselves disguise themselves as long held beliefs we have about ourselves sometimes. “I’m just not good with money.” “I’m not a very organized person.” “I’m not as capable as she is.” “My husband is supposed to make me happy.” “Having kids has made me miserable.” These are all lies or thought errors as we call them. Life coaching can help you to uncover these thought errors and stop them from causing damage in your life. With life coaching, you will learn how to question these thoughts and then choose only the most purposeful and luxurious thoughts so that you can have a purposeful and conscious life.

This blog post was influenced by: https://childmind.org/article/why-kids-lie/ and https://www.parenting.com/article/why-kids-lie-age-by-age

Do you want to learn how to be honest with yourself and others? Do you want to create your ideal life but feel held back by your long held beliefs? Schedule a free 20 minute discovery call to see how life coaching can help you be your best self.