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Young Children Lying - Doesn't Bother Me Much

By Sarah Liebetrau - 9th May 2011

There has been a great deal of fibbing going on in our house recently. Telling of porky pies. Pulling the wool. Stretching the story to fit the circumstance. Blatant bald-faced untruths. Many parents I know find the discovery of their children lying to get out of being blamed for something, or manipulating a game to enhance their chances of winning (also known as cheating) quite disturbing. They are often unimpressed, to say the least.

I have a friend who is a school teacher and she readily admits that any kind of lying and cheating is a real bug-bear of hers. Every time she sees or suspects it, she itches to bring the perpetrator to justice in order to teach them (and the kids around them) right from wrong.

But (to tell you the truth), I’m not particularly bothered by it. I’ll tell you why. Lying is a developmentally appropriate stage that all kids go through (to a greater or lesser degree) in order to become socialised human beings.

Mr 5 figured out how to bend the truth a while ago – his fanciful concoctions are getting more complex and sophisticated. Ms 2, however, has only just cottoned on to the idea that it’s even possible to say something that you know to be untrue. She has started to say “no it wasn’t me” when asked directly by her dad if she has just done a wee in her pants, as he points to the puddle of liquid evidence at her feet. Obviously this denial doesn’t help her case, but I suppose she thinks it’s worth a shot. It bemuses me to witness this entire interaction – why ask the question when the answer is so bleedingly obvious? It’s like inviting the child to make something up. I think it’s smart of them to assess the situation and go for the answer that they think will give them the best outcome – or in Ms 2’s case, to go for the answer that she wishes were the case, rather than reality. Maybe, rather than calling it lying, we could call it a positive visualisation technique?

Whatever you call it, we all lie to some degree. Human interactions would take on a very different (and less harmonious) state if no one lied, ever. No omissions, no softening of the truth, no outright falsehoods. There would be far less flattery, pleasant politeness, well-meaning gratitude, peace-keeping efforts. There would be no children’s fairy tales, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny. There would be far less kissing and making up. Of course, there are bad lies too.  And honesty, to oneself and others, is important in many situations to live an ethical life. But the thing is, there is no universal truth about honesty. We all have slightly different ideas of what it means. And small children are not yet equipped with the reasoning skills to understand the differences between an okay lie and a bad one; they are also learning how to be moral and have empathy.

If I ‘catch’ our children in a lie, I don’t insist they retract their position or argue the point. This just leads to further denials, digging in of heels, and frustration all 'round. I’m keen to avoid labelling either of my children as liars – I don’t think shaming them is the answer. Often this can lead to a spiral effect where, once labelled, the child just carries on with the behaviour even more, believing they've been pre-judged. I’m also aware that, sometimes when my children lie, it’s because they fervently believe what they’re saying, even though I know it to be untrue. I’m not just trying to avoid an argument (although that’s true too), I want them to be able to get to the point where they can decide for themselves that telling the truth is the better option. And I think this takes time.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think letting them ‘get away with it’ is the solution either. I still give consequences for inappropriate behaviour, but  I don’t try to get to the bottom of an argument that I wasn’t witness to, for instance, by questioning each of the aggrieved parties to determine who is telling the ‘truth’.  Even when I’ve caught our children in a lie, rather than challenge them directly, I observe what I can see (for example, “I can see that broccoli in the bin” rather than “I know you’re lying I saw you throw it away”) and suggest an alternative while still enforcing consequences ( “it’s okay not to eat it but that means no dessert”).

When I ‘catch’ our kids telling the truth, I comment on it so they know I have noticed and appreciate it.  It would be different if my children were older, but I am comfortable with this approach for now.

How do you handle the odd fib? Do you call the fibber on their actions to avoid repeat behaviour? Or do you ignore, distract or lead by example?

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