The main reason children lie is because they’re afraid that if they tell the truth, something unpleasant will happen. Lying is a defence mechanism; it’s an attempt to protect yourself from perceived danger. People who lie tend to be scared in some way. So when children start lying, it means they have sensed some danger. More likely, they are afraid of the autocratic authoritativeness of their parents and tremble at the thought of telling them the truth. The mistake most parents make is they often misconstrue this fear for respect. Respect is not enforced—it is instinctive.

The truth about lies

A well-known truth about lying is that everyone, including children, knows it’s bad. But we still indulge in it because the trade-off for lying is some kind of short-term payoff. And frequently, this payoff is higher than the perceived loss that comes with speaking the truth. Whether in business or in daily life, we have been conditioned to choose profitable opportunities over defeating ones. This same short-sightedness, when transferred to  children compels them to focus on the immediate benefits of lying even at the cost of overlooking the long-term harm it does to their character.

Consider these:

  • No I didn’t get any homework today [evading responsibility]
  • I was not misbehaving at the party [avoiding punishment]
  • I did not break that jar, it just fell [escaping consequences]
  • I did not hit him. He hit me first [keeping own self-regard]

From the child’s past experiences, she has learnt that telling truth often results in bad/unwanted consequences while lying helps her avoid them.

The past makes way for the future

Your child’s bad behaviour in the past may have led you to punish her. That’s how parents’ discipline their children when their actions call for it. But though punishment is necessary, it is never sufficient. That’s because the child does not understand why she is being reprimanded. All she knows is that if her mother doesn’t know the truth, the negative outcome vanishes and so does the punishment. That is why every child getting punished needs to understand exactly why she is being punished. She has to be told that it’s not the ‘naughty act or event’ but the ‘outcome of the naughty act or event’ that is responsible for her punishment. Not doing so means that we are indirectly encouraging our kids to lie.

Watch for these signs

When kids get caught in a lie they often:

  • Look away and make little eye contact with you
  • Cross their arms or switch gestures if they get nervous
  • Get fidgety because of guilt and fear about their punishment.
  • Repeat themselves several times so you’ll believe that they didn’t do it

When you’ve identified the lie, be cautious as well as compassionate. Even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shows compassion and offers punishment that is corrective. As parents we can certainly to do better than that. After all, our objective is not to simply punish our children and make them feel bad, but to make sure that we’re raising them to be responsible and honest individuals.

Be considerate

If you suspect that your child is lying, don’t immediately accuse her. Remember that your child may actually be very afraid at that moment and just like adults, kids too are more comfortable speaking the truth when they are not afraid. So you first have to earn the trust of your child. To support your child in telling the truth, make him feel safe, loved and respected. Listen without judgment.

Magnify the truth

One would often assume that if you want your child not to do something, you have to make her feel bad about doing it. All children know that it is not good to lie, but they do it out of fear. By focussing on what you ‘don’t’ want them to do, you’re drawing more attention to that behaviour. Now they will not only be fearful but also guilty.

A better way to manage this situation is to praise your child each time she speaks the truth. That will motivate her to speak the truth more often—in fact she will enjoy it too. Use phrases such as:

  • “It’s very good to know that you are speaking the truth”
  • “You’re a brave child for having spoken the truth”
  • “I like knowing the truth. Thank you.”

Take your own advice

If you don’t want your children to lie to you, you also must be completely honest with them in everything that you say to them, even when you’re refusing to give or do something they want. When they ask you why they can’t go play outside, instead of making up some arbitrary reason that isn’t true, share the real reason with them. Involve them in your process of wanting to be honest with them. And if the honest answer is that “you don’t know”, go ahead and tell them that you don’t know. Because it’s alright to not know! Your children need to learn that too—that it’s ok to not know. They need your honesty more than you realise it. By living what you want your children to do, you’ll set an example and show them what’s possible. They will learn to be brave, today as well as when they grow into adults.

 This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.