As the primary role models in children’s lives, parents play a vital part in showcasing honesty. They also have the most influence when it comes to instilling a deep-rooted commitment to telling the truth.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children and adults lie for similar reasons: to get out of trouble, for personal gain, to impress or protect someone, or to be polite. Children also tell little white lies because they want to make themselves sound exciting to fit in or they have observed another child lying. The problem with this behavior is that over time, it can lead to bigger lies about very significant things.
Lying occurs in various ways and according to the age and developmental stage of the child. Here are some of the characteristics of lying at these ages and stages and how parents can respond:
Toddlers and Preschoolers (Ages 2 to 4)
Because toddlers’ language skills are just emerging, they do not have a clear idea yet of where truth begins and ends. Toddlers also have a shaky grasp on the difference between reality, daydreams, wishes, fantasies, and fears, says Elizabeth Berger, child psychiatrist, and author of “Raising Kids with Character.” They are too young to be punished for lying, but parents can subtly begin to encourage truthfulness.
School-Age Kids (Ages 5 to 8)
Between the ages of 5 and 8, children will tell more lies to test what they can get away with, especially lies related to school classes, homework, teachers, and friends. Maintaining the lies may still be difficult, even though they are becoming better at concealing them. Because school-age children are keen observers, parents must continue to be good role models. Be careful about what lies you may be used to saying. Even something as small as “Tell them I’m not at home” when you are, can send a very mixed message to a school-age child. Notice when a child is being honest and provide praise and positive feedback.
Tweens (Ages 9 to 12)
Most children this age are well on their way to establishing a trustworthy and conscientious identity. They are also becoming more adept at maintaining lies and more sensitive to the repercussions of their actions including strong feelings of guilt after lying. Longer conversations about honesty are necessary, as there will be rare “little white lie” moments when some dishonesty is acceptable in order to be polite or to spare another person’s feelings. When situations like this arise, be straightforward with your child to avoid sending mixed messages.
In general, take the time regularly to encourage your children to be honest and explain the reasons why it is important. Children respond well when they understand reasons why we do things and how the situation could affect someone else.
If you are in a situation where you know your child is lying to you, try not to let your emotions take control. After you have had time to calm down, talk through the situation with your child. Ask them what has happened and try to separate the lie and the behavior that led to it, so that your child understands the importance of honesty as well as the importance of why we don’t do the wrong thing.
Explain to children that everyone makes mistakes and that when we make mistakes, it is important to learn from them. Discuss what they could’ve done differently. Children need to feel safe, secure and supported to open up about mistakes.
Realize that your children are not always going to tell you the truth. Taking a moment to think about why they are lying should help you respond to their lies more appropriately. Dealing with the little white lies now will prevent dealing with bigger lies in the future.