For many parents it’s a trigger issue. At the first sign of a less than truthful statement from their child, the panic sets in.
Uh oh… my kid is lying! On purpose! I must fix this immediately!
All kids play around with lying, or half-truths, or omissions, or alternate versions of reality. It’s part of growing up, and entirely normal. Some children just play around with truth a bit more than others. And that’s ok too.
From my perspective children’s untruths tend to be split into two general categories:
2) Avoiding getting in trouble
“Storytelling” means simply that sometimes children make up events or accomplishments because:
a) They want a dose of that yummy attention of ours and are just a bit unsure about a better way to get it at the moment, AND
b) They have wild imaginations!
The trick is to just look for the feeling behind the story and respond to that.
Child: “Guess what! I jumped SO high, all the way to the top of the tree. Then I stood on the branch, then I jumped all the way down!”
Parent: “Wow. All the way up to the tree? That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? I wish I could do that too. It would feel like I was flying!”
And sometimes, kids will just weave nutty stories and will swear they are real. These come from those kids with deep and rich imaginations. You can differentiate it as a “story” while still having the child feel honored.
Child: “Yes, a gorilla DID come to my class today…and he ate the hamster!”
Parent: “Ate the hamster? That’s crazy! Now THAT is amazing. I love this story. What happens next?”
“Avoiding getting in trouble” tends to be the trickier one for us. Think about it….if a child thinks there might be a chance they’ll get in trouble for something, it’s likely their survival instinct will kick in and they’ll hide the truth. It makes perfect sense. That could look like hiding the sock they cut holes in, denying their participation in a marker-on-the-wall incident, saying their friend “gave” them the Spiderman, or they “found” that bouncy ball that looks a lot like the one you saw in the Walgreen’s check-out.
Don’t freak out. This is normal behavior. Yes, it’s important to teach your children honesty…but how you do it really matters.
Don’t get all Spanish Inquisition on them. Put away the chair and the spotlight. Don’t investigate or point out flaws in their argument. Don’t try to catch them in a lie. That breaks trust. If you know the truth, don’t set them up. And lastly, DON’T yell or have a big reactive response.
DO go in softly to the conversation, DO try to understand their perspective, DO remember that children learn values best when they are less anxious.
“I see you have a bouncy ball in your hand. I know you must love it because it has a dinosaur inside of it. You love dinosaurs. I also know that it belongs to the store because we didn’t buy it. That’s called “stealing” and it’s our job now to take it back. I know it’s hard sometimes, but it’s important to be honest. I’ll help you.”
“I hear you, your perspective is that you didn’t push your sister. My eyes saw a push. Please remember to be gentle. And remember that honesty is important in our family. I know it’s hard, but it matters.”
And then just move on! You don’t need an admission of guilt to wrap it up in a bow. If you require that a child confess they are now forced to choose between losing their dignity or engaging in a power struggle.
It’s important to let our children know that honesty is very important, but that we still see their innate goodness…it’s just practice.
And here’s the most important distinction of all:
When parents are highly reactive to dishonesty it inspires MORE DISHONESTY!
If a child feels like they’re stepping on a landmine when the lie is discovered, the less likely they are to be honest and the greater lengths they’ll go to in covering up untruths.
How you respond to your child’s lies now is an important part of the groundwork for whether they feel safe coming to you to talk about other hard stuff.
By practicing not being reactive during the hard moments, we are creating that “soft landing” for any and all of the vulnerable and hard things we want them to share with us down the road.