Have you ever heard an exasperated parent say to a child, "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a liar!" Maybe you've used the expression yourself. Parents want to raise good children, and lying doesn't fit that picture.
Before we get into why it is that children lie, let me make one important point. There is a difference between calling a child a liar and talking about his lying. When we call someone a liar, we are making a statement about who the person is. When we say that someone lied, we are making a statement about a person's behavior. If we want to encourage a person to change, it is much easier for him to change his behavior than to change who he is. So, let's not label a child or anyone as a liar, a cheat, a crook, a dummy, whatever it may be. Instead, let's refer to lying, cheating, stealing or stupid behavior, which a person is capable of changing.
Now, let's take a look at why children lie. Some children are too young to distinguish fantasy from reality, and they "lie." We're not talking about that kind of "lie" here. Other the other hand, there are basically only two reasons why children lie, one is to avoid something unpleasant and the other is to gain something.
If a child knows he has done something wrong, such as crayoned on the wall, he may lie to avoid possible punishment. A child may lie when asked if she brushed her teeth before going to bed because she wants to avoid an unpleasant task and wants to get right to something pleasant, reading a bedtime story. It'a not this occasional lying behavior that is problematic. If we adults were honest with ourselves, we, too, may sometimes not be truthful to avoid something we don't want to face or to gain an advantage.
What we're more concerned about here is lying behavior that a child regularly displays, even about insignificant things. This lying is not about avoiding punishment, but it is definitely about gaining something, though what that something is can be elusive. You may wonder why you keep hearing things like, "Yes, I did wash my hands. No, I didn't get into the cookie jar. Uh huh, there was a polar bear in the back yard" when you know those things are not true. Just what is the child getting out of the lying?
Do you feel annoyed, irritated or upset with your child's lying? Not really angry with him, but close to it, particularly as it goes on and on? Our feelings of annoyance or irritation generally indicate that a child is motivated by attention-getting. And more often than not, a child's regular and frequent lies are attempts to gain attention.
Do you find yourself in a back and forth with your child over washing his hands before dinner? When he says he washed his hands and you know he didn't, do you come back with something like, "Zack, I know you didn't wash your hands because I didn't hear the water running." And Zack comes back with, "I had the water turned on real low." And you reply, "Zack, I checked the towel and it was dry." And Zack says, "I didn't use the towel. I wiped my hands on my pants." And it could and often does, go on and on.
Now Zack may not have wanted to wash his hands and lied because he didn't want to, but he also got a lot of inappropriate attention from the exchange that followed. He used his lying to gain attention in an inappropriate way. And we get easily hooked when a child lies. We want him to admit the truth because if he doesn't, we're afraid that he will become a compulsive liar.
So what is the best way to handle Zack's lying when we know he is not telling the truth? Remember the first rule of dealing with attention-getting misbehavior. Refuse to give attention when it is being demanded inappropriately. So we don't want to reinforce the attention-getting behavior by getting into a back and forth exchange with Zack.
Even before that, however, let's not put Zack into a situation where he has the opportunity to lie. Let's not ask him a question that we already know the answer to. When we know that Zack didn't wash his hands before dinner, or when we see the cookie crumbs on his shirt and we know he was into the cookie jar, avoid asking, "Did you wash your hands? or "Were you into the cookie jar?" Instead of asking a question, state what you know to be the case: "Zack, you didn't wash your hands. Now go do it" or "Zack, I'm not happy that you got into the cookie jar without permission."
I know--you're thinking, Zack will say something like, "Yes, I did" or "No, I didn't." He's baiting you into a back and forth attention-getting episode. Don't go there! I know--you still want Zack to tell the truth and not lie. Trust me, the lying will stop when it ceases to serve the purpose of getting attention. Instead of getting caught in trying to get him to tell the truth, let him know that you know the truth and he does too. Tell Zack, "You and I both know the truth and I'm not going to say any more. Now, go wash your hands," or "No more cookies for today."
Attention-getting children know by our reactions which misbehaviors are likely to be good ones to adopt to get our attention. Lying is a great one, because there is such a strong moral implication to lying. Good people don't lie, and we want to raise good children. But if we take lying behavior out of the moral realm and look at it as a way that attention-getting children can feel important, powerful or good about themselves, we can alter that misbehavior. We can help children stop their attention-getting lying behavior by applying principles taught in the course, Understanding Your Child.