“I went to China this summer and fed bamboo to the pandas,” he said.
I’d known this kiddo and his family for years. They were great, but I was pretty sure they didn’t visit China with four young kids over the summer.
I texted my buddy who’d taught him the year before to ask. She LOL’d at us both.
Lying is a normal part of childhood and a sign of maturity and intelligence. As a special education teacher, I was excited when my kids learned to lie (and tell jokes). Because it’s a big cognitive leap.
When your child lies, it means he or she is working through something. They’re problem solving. For instance, they may be developmentally asserting control or trying to individuate themselves from us.
Of course, we can’t exactly give them a high-five when they make that cognitive leap. Our job as Boss Parents is to gently guide them toward pro-social, functional life strategies, and divert them from others. So what do we do?
Warning: More murky parenting waters ahead. But we’ll explore some options in this article.
A Taxonomy of Children’s Lies
First, let’s put some labels on the different types of lies we may hear.
- Imaginative Play Lies: For young kids (roughly five and under), the line between real and imaginary is kind of blurry. We spend lots of time reading fantastical stories and encouraging pretend play. So, it’s no wonder that fiction spills from the page into real life.
- Showoff Lies: This is pretty typical fare around an elementary school cafeteria. Everyone wants to be amazing, mysterious, and fascinating—like feeding pandas in China.
- Incessant Showoff Lies When showing off meets a strong need for attention, this type of lying may become habitual. Sometimes they may have a really lousy life, and know it. Or maybe they only think they have it lousy, and just love the way it feels to make up stories.
- Avoid Trouble/Get Someone Else In Trouble Lies: You got this, right? No explanation needed.
- Lies of Omission: This is when they don’t tell you the part they know they’d be in trouble for. (You: “What happened at school today?” Him: “Oh, you know, nothing…”) Then you check your email and find out about the food fight he started. You know, nothing…
- Polite Lies: You Look Mahhhhvelous! This is when a kid (um, or a grown-up) tells a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
The Man in the Mirror
Before we discuss different ways to address kid’s lies, I just want to quickly note that adults lie too.
We tell lies to avoid hurting feelings or to smooth our own interactions (“Sorry I didn’t call you back, I left my phone in the car,” or “No, Saturday’s won’t work, we have a birthday party.”)
From our perspective, they’re often inconsequential (or helpful, if we’re honest). But it’s important to remember that children are listening and learning. Always.
But that’s enough about us… Here’s what we can do about them!
1. Do Nothing. Well, Not Much.
If a kid is lying to spare someone’s feelings or they’re little and doing imaginative lying, there’s not much to do.
As young kids get older, you can playfully identify their statements as real or pretend. Just make sure you’re not encouraging the incessant variety of showoff lies. But that’s unlikely.
If a kid is lying to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, you could acknowledge that you appreciate what they were trying to do, and maybe suggest another option, if that’s necessary. (It’s pretty likely they learned to do this from you. Because you’re a nice person.)
2. Fiction or Nonfiction?
For those showoff lies, I love this strategy.
Identifying and labeling a text as “fiction” or “nonfiction” is standard in elementary school curriculum. So these are terms kids hear a lot.
With these types of lies, I ask the child, “Is this fiction or nonfiction?” It makes the question less of an attack, less of a GOTCHA! It identifies and defuses the behavior without all the shame, blame and embarrassment. (And reinforces an important literacy concept!) Kids respond well to this, and will even laugh about it.
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3. Fraying the Golden Thread
My friend Beth uses a beautiful analogy of a “golden thread” that connects us all to each other. It’s how she helps explain love and spirituality to her kids.
When we treat each other with love, kindness, and respect, it strengthens our connection via the golden thread. When we use hurtful words and actions, it causes the thread to fray and shrink. (But the thread NEVER breaks.)
When we lie to each other, it ain’t good for the thread. I love the way this visual representation makes love and trust more tangible. But be careful not to get too heavily into shaming. That can cause a kid to shut down and close off.
This approach is especially good for lies of omission.
4. Benefit of the Doubt
This is my school version of the golden thread.
Minor stuff goes down in school every day—from running in the halls to playing in the bathroom sink. Most kids are quick to shift the blame, and they all have a tremendously powerful sense of justice when they’re falsely accused.
When I taught in the classroom, I would introduce the concept of the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of each school year: “You know how much you want a teacher to believe you when you say you didn’t do something? Well, if I keep finding out about lies you tell, I just don’t have a good reason to believe you anymore. Even if you didn’t do something, you might get in trouble anyway.”
This would be an ongoing conversation throughout the year. When everyone was pointing fingers, I would explain that I needed to consider who had the benefit of the doubt.
This is a pragmatic approach kids really seem to understand, due to the high number of he-said, she-said interactions. When I did let kids off the hook for questionable infractions, I reminded them (and anyone listening) that it was a circumstance where they earned the benefit of the doubt, and they were cashing it in.
5. Wait It Out
If you’re actively trying to get to the bottom of a lie. Give it time.
You can take that time to calm down, and your kid can take that time to fret. Tell them you’re too upset to talk about it right now. (You’ll also be modeling self-regulation.)
I’ve had a lot of success with a few open-ended statements followed by a lot of silence (mine). I prefer this to bluffing, which works pretty well with young kids. (“You know I’m going to find out…”)
Instead, I say things like, “Well, talk to me. You know how this is going to go.” Or, “You know we can deal with it better if I find out from you.” Or, “You know I love you, and we can handle this together unless it gets bigger than us. It’s only going to get bigger than us if I find out you’re still lying to me.”
Then I just sit there for what feels like FOREVER. And then they start singing.
This also gives you plenty of time to study their sweet little non-professional-liar faces, and you can gauge their level of potential guilt.
I have to add two more things here. First, the reason I think this worked for me is my students knew I loved them and that I’m fair. If you have a history of flying off the handle and leveling harsh punishments, your kids may risk the silence.
Second, if I know a child did it, I don’t want to set them up for another lie by asking. I wouldn’t ask my only child, “Who made the muddy, child-sized footprints through the living room?” I’d just skip it and move toward restitution and conversation.
This is where you have to know your kid, and weigh the type of lie and the need behind it. If your kid is miserable, that’s probably consequence enough for the first round.
If it was mean-spirited lie, or involved harm to someone else’s person or property (or stealing), I’d try to come up with a great creative consequence. Like maybe they wake up every day for a week missing a prized possession? (Oops! I think our TV remote was stolen! Oh well, no TV. Feels crappy? How do you think it feels when you take things from your friends? Crappy, right?) Hopefully it’ll be easier to remember than moving that dang Elf on the Shelf!
You can also create an escalated outline of consequences for future lies of the same nature. I like to let kids come up with their own consequences. They’re often much harder on themselves than we would be. That gives you the opportunity to play “good cop” and go for a more lenient sentence.
Whatever the consequence, focus on keeping those lines of communication open. If you rage and burn the village to the ground, you may never get access to that sweet heart again. Kids don’t always understand why lies are dangerous or hurtful. For them, it may be a solution developed on impulse.
Not Just Pants on Fire
Regardless of how angry you may be about a big lie, try to stay calm and focus on the feelings that led to the lie.
It’s not about the LIE. It’s about:
- why they lied
- the fact that they did
- how it impacts your family, and
- what you’re going to do about it.
It’s important not to let them off the hook, but we need to have empathy for the feelings and needs that led to the lying behavior. And whatever we do, we don’t want to shut the conversation down.
Try to talk about it without lecturing. For example, you could strategize with them about different ways they could’ve handled the situation. Help them follow the logic of several different options all the way through to the likely conclusions.
Lastly, if your child comes to you with a story he or she knows may result in trouble, be sure to offer genuine praise. It may be something inconsequential this time. The next time, it might not. This is how we can establish a family culture of: “It’s always better when you tell the truth.”
It’s natural to think our kids should know the importance of telling the truth. But like so many things, it has to be taught. And it’s a job for the Boss.
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About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.