Fibs, white lies, embellishment, a stretch of the imagination. Whatever you want to call them, one thing is for certain: kids lie. They lie about significant things (“I didn’t bully anyone”) and insignificant things (“I cleaned my room”). But when is it appropriate to get involved, and how do parents have these tough conversations with kids? We asked the experts to tell us the truth about lying.
Why kids lie
Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center, says kids lie for a variety of reasons. When it comes to younger kids, he notes it can be a new way to try out a new behavior.
“Lying can be a game to young kids,” says Bubrick, who points out that there are clear differences between lies.
Trivial lies, he says, can be small, such as a child telling their parents that they completed their homework. On the other hand, functional lies, like a child telling their parents they got an “A” when they in fact got a “D” or an “F,” prevent kids from feeling the accountability they don’t want to feel.
“In these cases, these lies might buy them some guilt-free time not to have to deal with the truth,” Bubrick says.
Not to be confused with lies, there’s also plain and simple mischief, which tends to go hand-in-hand with lying, says Arthur Lavin, a pediatrician and chair of the American Association of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.
“Kids like to see how far they can push, and we should let them have these playful tendencies and not be overly moralistic,” he says.
Mixed messages from parents
Experts note that it can be confusing to kids when they are told not to lie, but witness their parents doing it to some degree, such a taking a sick day at work when they are perfectly healthy and just need a break.
“We have to be careful of these instances because they send a mixed message to kids,” Bubrick says.
Lavin says when kids “catch” a parent in a lie, the best thing to do is fess up.
“Use the situation as a broader conversation starter,” Lavin says. “Take the time to talk about the fact that everyone is human, and that we all experience pressures that make it feel like it can sometimes be a good idea to not tell the truth.”
How to handle fictional characters
When it comes to fictional characters like Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, Lavin reassures parents that aiding in the embedding of these beliefs aren’t perpetuating lies, but rather telling a narrative.
“Narratives are different than lying because they help us understand the world and develop a foundation for meaning,” Lavin says. “Our narratives do change over our life – that is part of growing up.”
How to talk to your kids about lying
Bubrick recommends that if lies become perpetual, parents need to get involved. He cautions parents that it is best to initiate a separate age-appropriate conversation versus addressing the topic in the face of the lie.
“Make it a dinner table conversation instead of reprimanding after a lie,” says Bubrick, who suggests parents acknowledge that truth telling can be hard. “Remind your children that you will support them even when honesty may be uncomfortable.”
Lavin suggests these questions to open up the dialogue:
- Why did you feel the need to say something that was not true?
- What would have happened if you told the truth?
- In what other ways could you have handled it?
Bottom line, experts agree, don’t punish your child for lying. Rather, put lying into human context and show them there’s always a better way.