Actor Al Pacino once famously said: “I always tell the truth, even when I’m lying”. And like old Al, very few adults can claim to have always told the truth (cross your heart and hope to die). But where does it start and why do children lie?
Young children usually lie in an effort to protect themselves. With most children this seems to happen instinctively. In answer to a question such as: “Who broke this glass?” almost every child capable of speech (and quite a few adults that I know) will answer: “not me” even if it is glaringly obvious that they are indeed the culprit. But the reward (not getting into trouble) that results from a successful lie may motivate some children to keep telling lies in an effort to get their own way.
Sometimes children might lie when they feel hopelessly stuck in an undesirable situation. In this case, it is really more a verbalization of their fantasy than a purposeful intent to mislead. Consider for example a child who tells of a romantic date his parents went on recently when you know that the parents have in fact been caught up in a bitter, hostile separation for months. In these types of situations children tell lies because they feel that it gives them some sense of control, even if that sense of control is false.
“So?” you might think “A little white lie never hurt anyone”. But what then is the difference between a white lie and a serious lie? My first thought is that anything that is not 100% truthful is wrong, but then we would probably all be guilty of lying on a regular basis. Great story tellers and most successful businessmen have mastered the art of “enhancing the truth”, a little exaggeration does wonders to keep your audience captive. Perhaps it would be easiest to say that a white lie is a lie that only serves to protect someone and does not do anyone else harm. And I would then consider a serious lie to be one that could potentially harm others.
So when do you need to start worrying about your child’s lying? For me, a warning sign is when children lie consistently without apparent reason, especially if these lies implicate others. Lying is also a problem when it begins to impact negatively on a child’s social relationships: such as when lying erodes the trust relationship between parent and child or between siblings. Children who lie run a further risk of being labeled a Liar and will be shunned by their peers. If I had a Rand for each time I’ve heard the phrase “Liar, liar! Pants on fire” repeated on a nursery school playground I’d be writing this article from a hammock on my own private island.
So now what? How do you teach a child to be more honest without making the problem worse?
* Firstly, keep in mind that a child who feels threatened may lie even more in an effort to protect themselves. So remember not be aggressive when you confront your child about lying.
* Lead by example. It’s no use lecturing to children about their lying when we spread half truths while gossiping with our friends or tell them to tell unwanted visitors that we’re not home.
* Sit your child down and explain the implications their lies have had or could have had. Also explain the mutual benefits of trust: other will feel good knowing that you will tell them the truth and they will then want to be your friend.
* Children with very active imaginations are often in trouble for lying and it is important to teach them how to separate fantasy from reality. In therapy I deal with this by firstly praising the child for their impressive imagination and telling them what a wonderful tool this could be. I then explain to them how easily imagination and reality can get “mixed up”, the implications of this mix-up and the necessity to keep the two apart. Then I give the child a book and encourage them to write all their imaginative stories down in the book when they have their own quiet, “imagination time”.
I am often asked how parents should react when a child who is prone to telling lies, reports something important or troubling (eg. abuse).
Again, a very tricky situation! I do feel, however, that reports of abuse should never be ignored. Investigate all reports of abuse, but keep an open mind and evaluate all the evidence critically.
Can kids become pathological liars? And where can parents get help for a child who’s lies have become extreme?
Yes, pathological lying can occur in childhood. I would recommend that you enlist the help of a professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, to help you deal with this type of situation. Please feel free to contact one of the psychologists on our website if you feel that your child needs to see a professional in this regard.