The question of why children lie begs the greater question of why any of us lie. If you think back to the last time you lied (and I’ll bet my life you can think of a time), look at what was going on internally and this will give you a good idea of why your children do it and how to avoid it in future.
Now before we get to that, let me just say that we all have all traits. We are all liars sometimes and every one of us will be pushed to lie under certain circumstances. So firstly, please never label your child as a liar. Once we apply a label to a child they are more likely (not less) to repeat this behaviour and to incorporate it into their sense of self as they grow up.
ALL children lie sometimes (as do ALL adults).
Ok, so it’s normal to lie sometimes, but why, and why do some lie more often? Going back to why we all do, lying is a fear-based behaviour. The child believes, for whatever reason, that if they tell the truth it will result in more pain than pleasure. And where do they get this message? From us, of course. We’re constantly giving kids unconscious messages that telling the truth will get you in trouble. “Who ate the sweets?” “I did” “Right, go to your room”. Sound familiar?
What we need to get into the habit of doing is praising truth-telling and taking responsibility more than we punish “bad” behaviour. If our children own up and say that they “did it” we should be actively praising this behaviour and pointing out that while the behaviour is not ok with us, we’re really impressed that they told the truth. Children will only lie if they are afraid of our reaction to the truth.
I know that many people worry that if they take this approach they will be too soft on the bad behavior and will end up with unruly kids. One of the fundamental structures for well-behaved, compliant children is being their primary attachment (which implies complete trust, openness and closeness). If your children trust you completely and feel connected to you and loved no matter what they do they will actually be less likely to produce so called “bad” behaviours in the long run. Of course they will make mistakes along the way and present “negative” traits (like we all do) including lying, but this will not develop into any kind of delinquency if that adult-child connection is in place. And part of keeping it in place is keeping the lines of communication open and allowing your children to tell the truth and know they will be safe.
I think this is a fundamental skill to work on when your children are little and to instill a sense of open communication and acceptance BEFORE they become teenagers. Once our kids hit the teen years, if we’ve shut off honest communication, we are in for a different level of trouble with our children lying to us about things that can be life threatening, or where they really could use our adult help and guidance.
The next time your child lies to you think about why they would be afraid to tell the truth and then instead of punishing them for lying, rather address the rift in your relationship.