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Why kids lie

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies… There comes an age where our kids start to lie to us. There are many factors that play a role in why kids lie to us and at times all the factors just line up to create a perfect storm of power struggles and misunderstandings. There are developmental reasons for this, but also a societal norm as well as home based reasons our kids start to lie to us or attempt to hide things from us. In this article we will touch on all 3 of those reasonings.

Developmental milestones and lies:

According to Kohlberg and Piaget, moral development happens in different stages and the developmentally appropriate age where kids begin to experiment with lying is in the age range of 5 to 10 years. There are other Early Childhood development Psychologists and researchers that have the view of moral development starting at an earlier age. The age of 3. (If you want to read up on the scholars and research click here for the research article)

For the purposes of this article, we include the age range 3 to 10 years, as that is the current settled science regarding the development of morality. 

Piaget identified two different types of morality in his research: 

Heteronomous Morality: Which means, morality imposed by authority figures and the outside world, thus morality depends on the consequences and not the intent. Known as Moral realism (5 to 9 years – 3 to 8/9 years according to the latest research)

Autonomous morality: Self-imposed morality, thus the intent outweighs the consequences. Known as Moral relativism. (9 to 10 years – 7/ 8 to 10 years according to the latest research)

According to Grace Point; Early Childhood Moral development article: “Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg built on Piaget’s work to create his theory of the Stages of Moral Understanding. According to Kohlberg, young children at this age base their morality on a punishment and obedience orientation. Much like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that young children behave morally because they fear authority and try to avoid punishment. In other words, little kids follow the rules because they don’t want to get in trouble. It’s too much to expect preschool-aged children to automatically “do the right thing”. Click here for the full article.

Why is this important when we look at lies? Lies are the beginning stages of how children learn to navigate morality. They measure our reactions to their actions and determine what is good or bad and how to survive this life and how to fit in. When a child feels like they will be punished for what is viewed as a morally wrong action, they will try to lie and side step punishment in that way. There is however another factor that needs to be taken into account and that is the developmental space the child is traversing during the 3 to 7 year age group. In this age group they have an extremely active imagination. Their brains are not yet able to distinguish between reality and fiction. For them their imagination is tangible and real. So even if they broke the mug whilst playing, but in their mind the imaginary friend did it in the playing, they will state that it was their friend who did it, because to them their imaginary friend was the guilty party as they cannot distinguish between fiction and reality. So they are not lying and their words are not morally corrupt, they are not aiming at upsetting you or lying to you explicitly, they are telling you their version of the truth.

The lies we tell and how we react to the lies they tell:

We as parents lie to our children, and we do it so often. We read them fiction or they watch television and we tell them stories about Santa and the Easter Bunny. We use white lies when we are stuck in a corner and sometimes we say we will do something and forget to do it, or hope they forget we said that we would do it. It all adds up.

I can already see the eye rolls when I equated reading a story or watching television to your child as a lie. Unless the story is a historical factual book, fiction at its core is lies, it is a flight of imagination. It is acceptable lies because we as adults and even older children can differentiate between reality and fiction. We can differentiate between reality and imagination, and we enjoy these flights of imagination. The process of these flights of imagination is called “suspension of disbelief”. It is called that because we suspend our need for facts and reality, we deep dive into someone else’s imagination and we celebrate it. 

There is nothing wrong with the aforementioned practice and we would be remiss to deny the advantages that comes from reading books to our children, however we need to be aware that we as adults embrace a “type” of lying and for a young child that can be confusing as their language development and brain development cannot make that distinction yet. So when we read Peter Pan to them, they become the lost boys or Wendy or even Tinker Bell, Neverland is real to them. So extending grace for their flights of imagination, their lies for protection cannot be overstated.

I mentioned our lies we tell, by not executing what we said we will do, or by telling a white lie to get out of a sticky situation. They pick it up and as their brain matures and they learn to navigate the world, they will make use of those things. Kids see, hear and then mirror everything. Have you ever instructed your child to tell someone you are not there to answer the door or speak on the phone? Or have you ever told someone on the phone that you are already on your way while still getting dressed? They see it and they will use it too, they will use it on you.

Unless we have never told a lie or instructed our kids to lie on our behalf, we are in a sticky situation when it comes to parenting lies. 

Then there is how we react. In the way we react to lies or misbehaviour, we create the space for our children to navigate the difference between wrong and right. This age group, especially under the age of 8, views right and wrong as a moral black and white situation. So there is no room to manoeuvre. If you scream and shout over a glass of spilled water and have the same level of reaction to a broken ornament or when they run across the street, they cannot differentiate between the different types of wrongs and which is the lesser of all the evils, so to speak. 

If we react poorly in the early days of their experimentation with imagination, accidents and their difficult behaviour, we create in them a fear of how we will react in a particular situation. So we give them a defence pay-out and inadvertently encourage them to lie to us. 

Societal and life:

When a child feels uncertain or out of control they will try to lie and control the situation at hand. It hardly ever pans out in a good way. Ironically if you read some of the pre-teen fiction, it is all about a child lying to adults, while trying to figure out life and the situation at hand.

Society seems okay with lies, as long as it does not cause any damage to a person. Hence “white lies” as a label. We encourage flights of imagination by paying for someone else’s lies written in a book. So in the eyes of society, lies are good when you get paid for it, and lies are bad if you use it to hurt someone else or cover yourself. It is okay if you lie to get out of a situation, because being viewed as rude is far worse than telling a lie to protect someone’s feelings. You see how tricky it becomes for our children especially when they are that young. We punish children for lying, but then when they discover Santa is not real, we make up a new “softer” lie to ease the blow.

We need to own this, this is part of life, and we need to own the fact that our children will pick up on lies, try to lie to us with some success. So how do we parent this? How do we handle the lies our kids tell us?

How do we parent lies?

  1. Be a person of your word: When you say you will do something, do it. Even if they forget that you have said you will do it. Don’t give in on boundaries for the sake of the peace and then hope they will forget about it, they will remember and it will have a huge impact on your trustworthiness in their mind. They will start to distrust you, and they may not even be able to pinpoint why, they will just have a gut feeling of mistrust.
  2. Do not ask your kids to lie for you. It may seem small, but really we cannot ask them to behave in a certain way one moment and then another the next moment, just for the sake of our own convenience.
  3. Be honest and upfront, even when it is uncomfortable
  4. Own your mistakes and do not make excuses for your blunders. You messed up, fix it, no amount of lies will ever fix the mistake.
  5. During the imagination driven age group, allow for lies. When your kid lies here, you can use the words: “you wish ‘xyz’ did not happen.”, “I will appreciate it if you tell me the truth, when you tell me the truth, I’m able to help you. When you hide the truth it makes it difficult to fix the situation.” or “that is an amazing story, I think you need to write it down. You may become an excellent writer one day.” obviously without sarcasm or snark.
  6. Ask what their intent was, no matter the age of the child. Not accusingly, but inquiringly. Asking why as a genuine question, will reveal far more to you than shouting at them.
  7. Read stories and books and join them in their flights of imagination, that way they learn the difference between a straight up lie and suspension of disbelief.
  8. If you do the seasonal character (Santa/Easter bunny) type of things, make a point of telling them it is imagination and it is fun to do so. Under a certain age, they will tell you that they are real even when you tell them they are not. Celebrate it with a “Yes you really want it to be real and I love joining you on these adventures.” That way you are not lying to them, you are suspending disbelief and you are able to keep the “magic of imagination” alive and well. Not doing so, you stand the risk of tainting your relationship with your child into one of second guessing the words that you say, especially about the good stuff in life.
  9. Watch how you react to mishaps, and even blatant disobedience. If our reaction to those kinds of behaviour is scary, fear filled and punitive, they have no reason whatsoever to tell you the truth. Lying then just postpones the blow up indefinitely and as humans we are prone to choose avoiding conflict or delaying conflict if possible. So create an environment where they feel safe to share the truth, no matter what the truth may be. 
  10. Ask them what they think needs to happen when they are caught in a lie: This is especially important when they are older. That allows them to really think of the impact their words and lies have on others. The disappointment and hurt lies may cause etc.

Kids will lie, it is part of their development, and it’s how we parent it that will make the difference. We do not want to raise our kids to be liars, but we don’t want to kill their imagination. There is a fine line, but it is possible to traverse that line if we handle it with guidance instead of punishment. When we engage our children in honesty and sincerity that is when they learn the moral value of honesty, kindness and accountability.

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Trust is developed not earned

One of the more difficult concepts when raising children is the concept of trusting our children. It doesn’t really come easy, does it? We’ve had to do everything for our children from infancy, we had to trust our own judgement and we all know how under developed a child’s ability to think rationally is. We have all done the “Have you brushed your teeth? Come here let me check” mantra. We have to do it, because they are still learning, easily distracted and some kids just really hate doing certain tasks, like brushing teeth. So we as parents have to check them.

Photo credit: Kwhame Photography

The problem is, that our children start with a deficit of trust from parents, at least that is how they experience and view it. We do not take them at their word from the get go. I am fully aware that there is the belief that trust is earned and not just given, and we want our children to earn our trust. Well what if today we challenged that belief? What if from today you give trust to your child from the get go? No, I am not saying don’t check up on things as they learn how to do certain tasks, what I am saying is, always give them the benefit of trust until proven otherwise.

“Oh, but that is not how life works.” I hear you say. However it is how life works in reality. Think about it in these adult terms: You are looking for a job. You send your CV to a company. The person who reads your CV has to trust that what you wrote on your CV is in fact correct. For them to actually want to do a check on your qualifications and experience, they first had to trust the information you gave them. They do the checks – well some do, some don’t, you never know – if you were truthful, the checks will confirm their trust in the information you gave them is correct. Now you finally earned some more trust. However it started with you trusting that they will look at your CV and them trusting the information given. That small step of trust sets the foundation to earn further trust.

Trust is usually shown in the small things we do. If we feel the need to check up on our children to see if they followed through on something then either we thrust responsibility upon them before they were ready, or, we have unresolved trust issues of our own. Yes, I said it!

The last mentioned, heralds the need for deep introspection, it goes to how you were raised. Did your parents patiently show through how they treated you that they trust you or was your childhood littered with phrases like, “Let me check” or “Ï trust you, but not your friends or the outside world”. The problem with these phrases, as innocent as they may seem, is it always reflects back to the idea that you are not trustworthy and the mistakes you have made count against you. “Let me check” says: I do not take you by your word, you have let me down before, so why should I believe you now? I don’t trust your ability to be honest, thorough or capable. I know, when they are young, they experiment with lies and boundaries, and it never stops until the day we die. I also know they need support while spreading their wings, developing their independence and decision making skills. Starting from the foundation of trust, it is easier to guide them and help them manage the journey.

“I trust you, but…” the ‘but’ nullifies the trust and the belief that you are trusted. If you don’t trust my friends, then you don’t trust my ability to make valuable friends and build positive relationships. If you don’t trust the world, then you don’t trust that I will be able to care for myself in this world. That means you feel I cannot be trusted to make good choices when you are not around. This typically happens in the teenage years. Yes, I know, we don’t really trust the world or that weird friend our kid brought home. Our child’s ability to make good choices is not fully developed yet, so of course the trust is difficult.

They are our kids and we mean well. We want to set them up for success. How do we encourage independence, honesty and good decision making, if we do not set up boundaries and check up on them?

Trust, like connection works with a bank account. When baby is born, we don’t need to earn their trust. They trust implicitly that we will meet their needs. They trust us to listen to them and protect them and love them. We trust them too, to let us know when they need something, whether by cooing, looking at us, making small gestures or even crying. The relationship starts with trust.

In infancy our relationship with our children either deposits trust into the account or withdraws trust from the trust account. Every time baby signals their need and we respond, it deposits not just connection but trust into the bank. When we miss a cue, we withdraw from both accounts. In infancy, a healthy relationship between parent and child creates a positive relational bank account in connection and trust.

After infancy, we withdraw often from this bank account. When baby starts to walk and explore, but instead of trusting them to be able to learn how to trust their own body, we keep telling them how to do it. We keep on stepping in and thereby interfering in the learning curve. The more we helicopter their movements – I am not saying let them tumble down head first down a flight of stairs – the more we create a deficit in the bank of trust. There is a difference between standing close by and waiting to catch them when they fall, and providing supportive commentary like “I see your hands need a place to hold onto” and holding on to their bodies as they try to manage climbing down the stairs. In the first scenario, we trust that they will find a safe way to climb the stairs, while we show them they can trust us to catch them if they stumble or fall. But with the second scenario we hinder them learning to trust their own bodies and skills. Do they fall and get hurt, yes they do, however allowing them to fall and get hurt their brain learns how their bodies feel when off balance. They learn to trust themselves.

At certain ages we hand over specific reigns of responsibility to our children. We stop brushing their teeth and they start doing it themselves. We stop feeding them and they start feeding themselves. There is still a learning curve involved here. Yes, you have been brushing your child’s teeth for 2 years, we would hope they have learned by now how to do it properly. They did not! They learn through doing. For the next two to three years, brush teeth side by side, prompting the next place or step in the routine. Eventually, you will brush side by side and you will see them brushing every tooth the way they learned how to. Now you can slowly extract yourself from their tooth brushing process. You remind them that it is time to brush teeth and send them off to do so. How do you know if they did it? Initially you can walk with them to the bathroom and see them off at the sink. Over time, you see them off at the door and finally you reach the point where you don’t walk with them. It is a gradual process and you can follow your child’s lead, they will show you and tell you to let them be, when they are ready. Never ask them to show you if they brushed their teeth. You will soon enough discover if they did not. That goodbye hug or kiss will tell you if they did not. Don’t scold them when you smell the stinky breath. Just hug and whisper, “I can smell your teeth are not brushed, quickly go and do it please.” and leave it there. If there is no time or the situation does not allow for going back and brushing, when they are younger than 8, have some breath freshener with you, just to help them out until there is time to brush teeth. If they are older, natural consequences is the way to go.

Brushing teeth is just a small example of how to maintain and build on the trust relationship. We need to apply this to all things they do, learn and have a responsibility for.

Steps for checking whilst keeping the trust relationship in the positive:

1 – Do it for the child

2 – Let the child do it with you

3 – Slowly step aside and give them space to do it on their own

4 – Be their back up, remember they are still learning this thing called responsibility – You are always a team

5 – Ask if they did what they needed to do, believe their answers

6 – If they did not do what they needed to do, and it isn’t life threatening, let them live out the consequences of their actions

7 – NEVER SAY – Let me check.

8 – If they have not taken proper responsibility for something go back one step and support them without condemnation i.e. let’s brush our teeth together today. That way you give them support without stating that you don’t trust them.

There is no incentive for a child to be honest if we constantly check up on them after they have stated that they have completed a task. There is only incentive for honesty if they get positive reinforcement and support when they make mistakes. Protecting our children from the consequences of their choices and actions while they are still learning responsibility, teaches them nothing. Punishing them for not doing what they said they did, will just increase the likelihood that they will rather do it behind our backs and develop better skills at being sneaky.

You can have a conversation about honesty and trust with your child. Have these conversations when you are calm and not angry. You can say things like “I am feeling disappointed that you did not brush your teeth like you said you did. Honesty and trust is important for us to be able to function as a family. I want to be able to trust you. So let us find a solution together to get your teeth brushed in the morning.”

This invites your child into a conversation and it will be a clear indicator of whether you have thrust a responsibility onto your child, before they were ready to bear it. Remember, each child is different and even though there are all these guidelines of at what age a child ‘should’ be able to take proper responsibility for a task, not every child will be ready at that age and your child is not failing if they need support for a little bit longer than others.

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