When Kids Lie: 7 Tips for Parents

Kid lies start so innocently -- at 3 they may be claiming they brushed their teeth when you know they didn't. At first, you're almost impressed that they can mastermind such a cover-up so young, but then it hits you: If she can fib this well at 2, who knows what tall tales she'll feed you when she's 10 ... or 16? Kids who lie keep parents up at night, so if you want to curb the shenanigans going on behind your back, try these tactics to put your kids on a more honest path. 

Here's what the experts say to do when your child lies:


1. Establish that lying is worse than whatever they're hiding. First things first, if you want to encourage your kids to tell you the truth, you've got to make it clear that the truth will set them free, somewhat. Don't go so far as to say, "Tell me the truth, and you won't get in trouble" since who knows what they've done! But at least say that their punishment will be less severe if they 'fess up.

"Kids need to know that lying is worse in their parents' minds than whatever the lie itself was trying to cover up," says Harley Rotbart, parenting expert and author of No Regrets Parenting. "As kids get older, knowing the real story is ever more important. Young kids' lies rarely have severe consequences, but lies told by tweens and teens can be very consequential, even dangerous."

2. Give them two chances to confess. Kids cave pretty easily if you give them a chance, so if you're positive they're lying, say, "Billy, I know the truth. I'm going to ask you one more time: did you copy Jimmy's homework/shave the cat?"

"If they again lie, there should be a gentle punishment," says Rotbart. "The harshness of the punishments should increase if lying on this or other issues continues." If, on the other hand, your kid admits to his misdeed, "The punishment should always be reduced -- or even eliminated, if a very minor offense," Rotbart notes.

3. Reward honesty, even if you find out something awful. So your kid comes clean; he's doing drugs or trashed the neighbor's car. Try as hard as you can not to blow your top. "Praise kids when they are honest, especially when it is difficult," says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of the upcoming Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "When my daughter tells me something she did that she knows is wrong, I first tell her how proud I am that she was honest. Then we address the transgression."

4. Don't ask why they lied. "Children almost never respond to this question with a reasonable answer," says Mark Loewen, a child counselor and parenting coach. "Actually, most children struggle to verbalize this insight about their behavior. Instead, think of it from their perspective and say something like, 'You were afraid X would happen if I knew the truth, so you lied. Lying is not okay, so this will be your consequence. Next time, you can tell me the truth.'"

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5. Help your child feel what lying is like. "Help your child verbalize how it feels to tell a lie -- uncomfortable, bad, scary -- so that he associates these unwanted feelings with lying," says Lombardo. Also have your child put himself in the other person's shoes -- i.e., "How would you feel if your friend Sammy lied to you about being invited to the party?"

6. If you don't know what's true, trust your kids. "Give your kids the benefit of the doubt if you're not sure what the truth actually is," says Rotbart. "But if you subsequently find out they have lied to you, your disappointment should be obvious and attached to a punishment that fits the magnitude and recurrence rate of the lie."

7. Don't freak out over a few fibs. "Your children will lie; it is part of growing up and testing," says Lombardo. "A lie or two does not mean she will become a pathological liar as an adult."

How do you handle when your kids lie?


Images © Christina Simons/Corbis; © iStock.com/Calamity_John     

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