Lying: One Mother’s Quest for the Truth

by Bridget Hine

On a recent morning, the day after an especially exhausting trip to the store with my daughters (Cooper, two and Piper, six months), I was enlisting the help of my husband in discussing the bad behavior of my two year old. The conversation went like this:

Mommy: “Cooper, please tell Daddy what you did in the store yesterday that made Mommy unhappy?”

Cooper: “I don’t know.”

Mommy: “Did you unbuckle your stroller straps and get out of the stroller without permission?”

Cooper: “No.”

Daddy: “Did you unbuckle your stroller Princess?”

Cooper: “No daddy.” (batting her eyes like “Baby” in Dirty Dancing)

Mommy: “If you did not unbuckle your stroller straps, who did?”

Cooper: “Piper did it!”

Right then and there, I knew I had an issue brewing. You should know this about me, I have studied and taught Communications Studies for my entire adult life. This communication with my daughter intrigued me. Why did she lie? How did she learn to lie? How do I teach her not to lie? Is this my fault? Where did I go wrong? The questions flooded into my brain. The first chance I had I went to the Internet and started searching for answers. I wanted to know everything there was to know about lying and children. Boy, did I get schooled.

Lying is as old as the human race itself. For reasons of self preservation, adaptation or deceit, human beings have been liars since the dawn of time. We have become accustomed to a certain amount of lying in our culture. Whether it is politician promises or an eager car sales person, we have come to expect to encounter a certain amount of truth bending. So, how, in our culture of shaded truth, do we raise children who have a firm understanding of honesty? Let’s get this out of the way…Lying is a normal phase children go through as part of their development. (Phew!)

Wait, we are not off the hook yet! Think about the reasons people lie…it is convenient, avoiding responsibility for a transgression (nobody wants to get in trouble) and wishful thinking (entertainment or excitement). These are some of the same reasons children lie. I know it is normal for my seven year old son, Mark, to activate his imagination on any given day and claim he is a Jedi fighting the Dark Force. It is also normal that his imaginary brother comes for a visit every once and awhile even though I do not remember inviting him. It is also normal that when I ask him if he has cleaned his room he will always say yes (our definitions of “clean room” are very different). It is also normal for my two year old to tell me exactly what she thinks I want to hear when I catch her in the bathroom painting with the soap.Not only is it normal, but lying is also a sign that your little one may be considerably intelligent. Lying is actually an advanced skill. To construct a lie, a child must understand how to develop that lie and how to convince you that it is in fact the truth. Lying actually means that your child has reached a developmental milestone. (break out the baby book!) All Lies are not the Same…

We actually encourage lying in some instances. Just the other day, my daughters and I were in a retail store when another child with a dark port wine stain skin condition, covering half his little face, came around the corner. My daughter Cooper blurted out, “What is wrong with his face?” Aside from being mortified at her reaction, I was mortified at mine. In a very hushed tone I said to her, “It is not nice to point things like that out Cooper.” I was actually encouraging her to muffle her thoughts on this child’s physical appearance. I could have easily used it as a teaching moment about how God makes everyone different and beautiful, but to my own horror I encouraged her to lie by suppressing her thoughts. (I also do the same thing when I ask my husband to tell me honestly how I look before we go out somewhere.)

We actually encourage our children to tell what are called pro-social lies. I like to think that the white lies I tell to my children are for a good cause. The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the fine art scribbles my children produce that I have framed and now hang in the family room, the fairies and gnomes we hunt for in the back yard and in our Irish house, the leprechaun who decorates for St. Patrick’s day. We tell ourselves that this encourages creativity and imagination and it does! However, it is still lying and our children will eventually come to realize that. (Ask my brother-in-law who is still angry about the deception propagated on him with the Santa Clause hoax. He will be 30 in November!) In all my research I have come to develop a list of five things I think will help me in my quest for the truth.

1. Start within…

Everyday your little sponges watch you and listen to you for cues on how they are expected to behave. If you want honest kids, be a honest person. Always telling your children the truth is important. We tend to tell white lies to spare our children from dealing with certain realities or because we just do not have the time at that moment to deal with it. I catch myself doing some transgression of this all the time. Whether it be promising a treat and not delivering or saying five more minutes and then I will take them outside, little lies add up. (I am not giving up the mythical characters just yet though.) Be consistent. If you say you will do something, do it. If you promise a punishment, follow through. Your children will learn that you mean what you say and can be trusted.

2. Frame job

This is the way this conversation is heard on any given morning in my house:

“Did you clean your room?”
“Did you make your bed?”
“Can I go check?”

I know when I ask my son these questions that he will lie to me. I have been through it enough times to know that this is the way it will go. I set him up. I give him to opportunity to lie. My son does not lie to be devious or deceitful. He lies because all he wants to do at that moment is to please me. He knows what I want to hear, so he tells me that, taking the chance that he will be on the bus before I actually have a chance to notice that his room looks like a couple of UFC matches took place in there overnight. Do not set your kids up to lie. If you know your child has not cleaned their room,
remind them that cleaning their room will make it much easier to find the things that are important to them and ask if they would like some help.

3. Liar, Liar Pants on Fire
My daughter is going through a biting phase that I never experienced with my son. She will bite her brother and he will come running to me to tell on her. I will immediately ask her if she has bitten her brother to which I get a resounding NO! I will then say, “Cooper, I do not like liars.” In this situation, not only did I ask her a question I already knew the answer to, but I called her a name on top of it. A better reaction may be to say that biting can hurt people and I do not think she is telling me the truth. Instead of saying, “Do not lie to me” I have taken to saying “Mommy would really like if you would tell the truth.”

4. Choices

When my son was in Pre-K his teacher established that everything the children did was a choice. They made the choice to be good and they made the choice to be bad. She gave them warnings that reminded them of this. She would say something like, “Mark, are you making a good choice by not sitting still during story time? If you continue that choice then you will be choosing to sit away from the group” If Mark continued to make that choice she took him aside and told him that he chose to continue the behavior and he in turn chose to be punished. The same thing can be applied to lying. Explain to your children that lying or not telling the truth is a choice that they make. You would like very much if they made the choice to tell the truth all the time. Tell them that there will be times when they make the choice not to tell the truth and with this choice comes consequences they probably will not like. You are giving your child the opportunity to make up their own mind. It may take a few bad choices and not so great consequences, but after they connect the two, the choices they make will start to change.

5. Focus and Breathe
Sound like your Lamaze class? Same concepts different outcome. I have had many a mommy moment where I needed to step back and take a deep breath. Sometimes I did and sometimes I did not. Those times that I did were a lot less stressful for all those involved. When I reacted badly it became about my reaction, not about the fact that my child lied to me. I have been trying to get a handle on my reaction fuse. Instead of immediately jumping to the extreme I have started saying things like, “Mommy’s patience is very small right now. Please tell me the truth so that I do not lose my patience.” I have also begun to step back and breathe. If I feel myself about to go over the edge I walk outside or I say that I need a minute or two to collect my thoughts and remove myself from my children. My theory behind it is that to deal correctly with my children’s behavior I need to control my own behavior. This sometimes works and sometimes it does not. It is an on going process. As parents there are many things that we must teach our children before we send them out in to the world. Honesty is one characteristic that I would like my children to have a secure handle on. I want them to know that the truth is a powerful thing. I want them to always have the confidence to tell the truth. Teaching my children to tell the truth is as much about me as it is about them. I have to have to strength and the courage to react in a positive way. Now, when my children tell me the truth, I will say that I admire them for telling me the truth because that is a hard thing to do sometimes. With me setting a good example and encouraging honesty instead of punishing for it, I hope that my children will recognize that the truth is a valuable commodity and that it is ok to make mistakes as long as we work together to correct them.

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