Probably the biggest driver behind telling untruths is shame. Not to be confused with embarrassment, which is a societal response to perceived wrongdoing; guilt, a negative response about an act you have done; shame is about negative judgements of oneself. However, this is a very adult concept.
Children as young as twocan lie, these tend to be the obvious blatant ones such as asking a child where their shoes are, and they say they don’t know when they’re hiding them behind their back because they don’t want to leave the birthday party. This is known as primary lying.
By the time a child is around 4, they have developed the cognitive capability to understand the mental development of their listeners and can deliver more plausible lies such as, yes Mummy I have brushed my teeth and am ready for my bed-time story, knowing full well that Mummy has a goal to get the child to bed. This is known as secondary lying.
By the time a child is 7-8 years old, they can deliver lies that take into consideration the mental state of their listener and can also back it up with evidence or knowledge, plausible and evidenced. This is known as tertiary lying.
Telling lies is a normal part of cognitive development, your child isn’t going to turn into a serial liar just because they are exercising a developing part of their neurology.
How you respond to this, however, can make a big difference to your child’s self-esteem and sense of self.
If your response is one of abject horror, then you could be setting up an emotional response of shame.
If you laugh, then the response is very different, validation or accepting even. This could set up a scenario that lying is perfectly acceptable and even humorous.
If you explain cause and effect, action, and reaction, this then allows the child to understand the consequences of their own behaviour and learn a moral sense of self-based on communication, understanding and guidance.
Shame is a powerful emotion that will drive people to behave in what is seemingly totally unacceptable ways, even by their own standards. It is almost like a protective shield to prevent one from feeling ashamed of oneself and that protective shield can include telling untruths or fibs. It seems that the act or the guilt experienced after telling an untruth is not as bad as the shame felt by admitting we haven’t done something that we said we would or know we ought to have done.
The difference between developmental lying and a conscious lie to avoid consequences can be a tricky tight rope to balance, here are some tips to help cultivate an environment where honesty is the best policy:
Your response matters:
It’s natural to overreact when you catch your child in a lie (or you suspect they are lying). However, this response hinders honesty because your kids may do whatever they can to avoid being yelled at (or interrogated) in the future. Instead, work on getting yourself calm first. Take some deep breaths. Relax your face. Unclench your fists. Not only will you appear less threatening, but you will also be able to think a little more clearly in the moment.
Think carefully before you question:
Using open-ended questions and making observations can create an environment whereby your child gives a positive response. Instead of asking ‘where are all the crisps’ you could say I noticed that lots of packets of crisps have gone, do you know what happened to them?’ Or, ‘I see you cut your hair, did you achieve what you had in mind?’ may be more effective than asking, ‘What did you do!?’ Or ‘What are your plans for getting your English homework done?’ may be more effective than, ‘Why haven’t you done your homework?!’
Make it safe to tell the truth:
Many children will lie to escape a consequence or punishment. Some children already feel so ashamed that they will argue and avoid conversations, especially if they know punishment is coming. If your goal is to promote honesty, use moments of truth-telling as a learning opportunity, rather than a chance to pile on additional consequences. Stay focused on keeping yourself calm and think before you speak. Demonstrate to your kids that you value their honesty over their ability to make a good choice 100% of the time.
Relationship before task:
Lying, stretching the truth, or making up an untrue response maybe your child’s way of protecting your relationship. On some level, they may realise that by being honest, they will cause distance between the two of you. It’s OK to talk about your child’s lying behaviour but find the right time and place to do so and don’t make it a constant subject of conversation. Instead, connect with your child on a regular basis and remind them that they are loved unconditionally.
Empathise with their struggle:
Telling the truth is only part of the story here. Often children don’t think things through, it’s not deliberate, part of the developmental stage of being able to consider the consequences of their actions comes around 10 years and beyond. There may have been peer pressure in the moment, one bad choice that got out of control, or an impulsive decision that your child immediately regretted. Be willing to listen openly, put yourself in your child’s shoes, and see things from their perspective (even if you do not agree).
Keep development in mind:
Young children have a different understanding of reality and fantasy than adults. Sometimes, their “lies” are more wishes, expectations, or lack of knowledge about a topic. ’Carrie has a guinea pig called Bertie’ may simply be imagination gone wild or a fun thought. As children grow, their understanding of reality becomes clearer and lying may have a deeper purpose. Be curious about the underlying reasons your child is struggling to tell the truth in this situation.
Encourage ways to make it right:
Rather than forcing your child to complete a task or make amends immediately, open the conversation about unintended consequences, people who may have been hurt, things that were broken, how other people may feel, etc. Then help your child brainstorm ways to right a wrong, even if it was unintended or they feel ashamed. The goal is to help your child see that the lie does not define them and that there is always a way to make it better.
Make it a family expectation: Be aware of times when you stretch the truth, ask your kids to lie about their age, or tell a neighbour that you’re “too busy to stop by” when you just don’t want to hear her talk about her dog for three hours. Set an example for your children by practising honesty with strangers as well as within the family. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it, rather than dismissing or minimising it. In other words, act as you want your children to act.
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