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Lying for beginners (ages 4 to 6)
Like many behaviours that emerge early in life, lying is a normal part of a child’s development. “It’s almost universal that kids are going to experiment with lying between the ages of four and six,” explains psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. They lie for the same reasons adults do: to avoid conflict for doing something wrong or to gain social status (for example, getting more attention at sharing time by saying “We’re getting a puppy!”). “It’s how the parents deal with it that will indicate whether it will grow or get nipped in the bud,” says Schafer.
First, “don’t set them up for a lie,” says Schafer. “Don’t say, ‘Did you break the lamp?’ if you know the answer.” They may feel scared or ashamed and lie to avoid punishment. Instead, try, “I see you broke the lamp; what can we do to fix it?” Your child will learn that you aren’t a scary disciplinarian and will be more likely to confide in you.
Also try to discourage seemingly innocent dishonest behaviour, like letting your six-year-old cheat at a board game because you want her to win and feel good about herself. Better to call her on it. If she cheats again, tell her you’re not going to play the game anymore. It may seem harsh, but think of how proud you’ll both feel the first time she beats you fair and square.
Lying with intent (ages 7 to 8)
By the time kids reach the age of seven, they have a pretty good grasp on fibbing, and that’s when the deviant lies can emerge. The unfortunate reality? We’re the ones setting an example for our kids. Think of all the times you’ve told a white lie to get out of a social engagement or said that a neighbour’s hideous new birdbath/couch/hairstyle was beautiful in order to spare her feelings. “Kids hear us do it, but they’re not as skilled as we are,” says Schafer. “So they generalize the concept of a white lie and apply it to other situations.”
In addition to avoiding white lies, it’s important to focus on the positives of truth telling instead of the negatives of lying. “Telling kids that lying is bad does not seem to be as effective in changing the behaviour as telling them how proud they should feel about how truthful they are.”
The hard truth (ages 9 to 12)
If lying continues into the tween years, it’s generally a symptom of a larger issue. “It may be an indicator that you’re too punishing in your parenting style,” explains Schafer. “Learn some form of discipline that doesn’t involve punishment but moves toward logical and natural consequences.”
Say, for example, you’ve caught your tween lying about completing his homework. Rather than grounding him or taking away his TV privileges, discuss why it was wrong to lie, then agree to go over his finished homework together at the end of each evening. He will learn that lying results in lack of trust and stricter supervision of his daily activities. “It’s an educational thing, not punitive,” says Schafer. “You have to connect why honesty and trustworthiness gain him freedoms and responsibilities.”
Ultimately, even if you feel like your family is stuck in a rut, it’s never too late to teach your children to tell the truth. You can decide that, from here forward, you’ll react and respond differently to your child’s behaviour, says Schafer. “Make the decision that you’re going to do better, then implement it.”
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