Most children can distinguish between truth and lying by age 4. “That doesn’t mean kids can’t have an overwhelming desire to want something to be different,” says Susan Esquilin, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. The 5- or 6-year-old who lies about the broken vase is not only trying to avoid punishment, she also wishes she hadn’t broken it. Many time kids will lie to us because they don’t want us to think unkindly of them This is especially true when they have a positive relationship with the adult.
When children reach school age, kids may begin to invent stories to enhance their reputation among their peers. By the preteen years, children are capable of more complicated deception. They tend to bend observations to get friends to favor their side of the story rather than give an accurate depiction of what really is!
Understanding the motivation for lying is essential if the adult is going to assist the child in avoiding ethical shortcuts for the short term gain. Parents need to examine whether they’ve created a home atmosphere in which their children feel safe telling them the truth. If kids know the only response to admitting guilt will be rage and punishment, they may be more likely to lie to protect themselves.
Adults need to be more intentional in phrasing their questions. “If you want children to tell the truth, avoid asking incriminating questions whose answers you already know,” says Nancy Samalin, director of Parent Guidance Workshops in New York. Instead of demanding “Who broke the vase?” you might say, “I’m angry that the vase was broken. What happened?” or “Are you afraid that I’d get angry that the vase is broken?” Questions that make your child feel like a participant in a discussion and not the subject of an inquisition can lead to a dialogue about the consequences of her actions: How will you be able to trust her again if you can’t rely on her to be honest? How will her friends trust her?
When the reason for fibbing isn’t so obvious, you need to look for an underlying cause. Is your child feeling so much pressure from you to succeed that she fibbed about winning the swimming badge? Fantastic tales of the “My dad is running for president” variety may signal a lack of self-esteem. You’ll want to know why your child feels that just being herself isn’t enough. Similarly, social insecurities may underlie a preteen’s trying to pit one kid against another through misrepresentations. In short, since lies are wishful thinking, what does your child wish were true that’s not?
Parents also need to examine their own behavior to see if they’re unwittingly sending the message that lying is acceptable. Has your child heard you tell a police officer you were doing 50 when it was closer to 60? Even the smiled-upon white lie