There are three reasons kids lie. When we understand those differences, we know how best to respond.
Kids lie because:
1) They don’t process information well.
In such instances, they really think they heard you (or someone else) say something—even when that’s not the case. There’s often even some shred of “truth” to their fabrication.
For example, suppose our child hears us say that we’d love to go to Hawaii for Christmas, but her brain processes that as . . . We’re going to Hawaii for Christmas!
So that’s what she tells everyone. She may even get upset when called out for her “lie”—since she really believes that’s what was said.
2) They don’t interact well in social conversations.
The intent, here, is not to create a lie to evade responsibility for something they may have said and done.
Instead, such kids come up with something often wildly preposterous as a way to circumvent feeling uneasy and to start or become part of an on-going conversation. For example, they may say that they saw a famous pop star when they were at the store. Or they’ll say something such as, “It snowed at my house yesterday”—but they live by the beach in Southern California.
When called out on the whopper—which is what usually happens—the child insists that whatever she said was the truth. In fact, the more someone challenges the whopper, the more adamant she becomes.
So the whopper becomes a way to shift an initial friendly conversation into an argument. And guess what? That kind of interaction actually feels good and familiar to the child who told the whopper. So, now she’s at ease (which was the original, subconscious goal).
3) They want to avoid judgment and punishment.
From these kids’ perspective, it’s more appealing to lie than tell the truth because the former (at least) creates the possibility of avoiding a negative response. In other words, this kind of lie is more of a protective, fear-based reaction to how such kids project someone might respond if they “find out” what they did.
There’s a common thread among kids who tell these kinds of lies. Usually, those in charge of them tend to be attached to an outcome, judge if such outcomes don’t meet their criteria, use lots of judgmental words in their daily interactions, and resort to punishment if behavior is not up to their standard.
So how do we respond to such different kinds of lies?
If we realize that our child doesn’t process information well, we initiate a general discussion on this topic. We make sure to do this when we’re all “in our cortex” (versus right after there’s been a miscommunication).
We may even play the game “Telephone” to underscore the idea that communications are not always processed as they were actually said. We then establish some kind of code word to use if our child now says something that she believes to be true, but we know . . . wasn’t actually processed as intended.
At various times, we can also ask our child to tell us what she thinks we just said (especially if we don’t think she processed the message). Doing so gives us a chance to clarify any misinterpretation, right then.
If our child tells whoppers, we no longer call her out. In fact, we completely ignore all whoppers. Instead, we use that as our cue to see how we might include our child in the current conversation in a way that puts her at ease. We may also seek ways to help her, in general, become more skilled in the art of making conversation.
If our child tells lies as a fear-based reaction, we first reflect on how we actually deal with mistakes in our home that perpetuates such fear. Do we yell? Do we judge? Are we demeaning? Do we immediately punish?
If so, then it’s really no surprise that our child concludes it’s better to lie than tell the truth—even though such conclusion is not viewed similarly by others.
But trust is also a two-way street. While we want to be able to trust our child, here’s the second part of that equation: Does she trust us? In other words, why doesn’t our child believe she can tell us the truth?
That may be a hard question to answer. But more times than not, such answers are the catalyst for changing a child who lies into one who tells the truth.
We may also ponder these questions: Has our child ever had a positive experience where telling the truth served her well? Has anyone actually taught her how to take responsibility if she makes a poor decision?
I’m not advocating that if kids tell the truth, then they just waltz away without any more ado. Not at all.
But if our kids don’t first trust us enough to share the truth, then we miss incredible opportunities to teach them.
For example, when they feel secure enough to admit when they’ve “messed up,” we can now help them explore ways to rectify that situation. We can teach them not only to learn from their mistakes, but also how to accept responsibility for their actions. It seems like those experiences would build ever-lasting character and serve our child—in the long run—far more than issuing a generic punishment for lying.
So I’m not sure that it’s ever helpful to view a child as “a liar.” Instead, we can opt to hear such responses (if they happen) as mere feedback that gives us insights—both about our child and ourselves—so that we may know how to respond in a way that moves everyone forward.