Many parents report that their child lies and they are frustrated with what to do about it. Understandably parents are concerned. The child may be getting into trouble at school and getting other people into trouble by lying about who did what when. Also, parents may catch a child lying at home and that can be very bothersome. We would all like our children to be honest and we worry whether lying is some slippery slope leading to a barrage of other deceitful behaviors. For most children, there is no slippery slope and lying either is not a problem or not an enduring problem. There are extreme cases where excessive lying can be part of a larger set of behaviors that includes aggression against peers and siblings, destroying property, and being very oppositional at home and at school. Yet, these are clearly exceptions and in these cases lying may be one of many concerns.
What do we know?
Here are some things we know. First there are many examples or models (people showing or modeling the behavior) of lying. Television, movies, and video games for example include instances where people say things that the child or adolescent knows not to be true or to be deceitful in some way. Second, as parents we model lying directly, that is telling something we know to be false. Of course, we make distinctions of all kinds by adding color to the lies we like (“white” lies), watering them down with more gentle language that is not as harsh as “lies” (fibs, or we were just kidding), or giving sound reasons such as these “fibs” are part of the joys of normal childhood (e.g., Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy). (I apologize to the reader who believed up until this point that Santa and the Tooth Fairy were real people—I was just kidding.)
Finally, and arguably the most important influence, are instances of what parents say around the house that are clearly untrue. Of course, you (dear reader) and I (dear author) would not do this, but some parents might suggest to their spouse, partner or relative to call into work or school and just say you are ill, boast that they did or did not report something on their income tax, mentioned that they mistakenly received an extra $5.00 change at the grocery store and said nothing, or said they were busy and could not do something, when in fact that is untrue.
I mention these influences merely to highlight the context of lying among children and adolescents. Instances of lying that are modeled can teach and have impact. We even know a little bit about how this occurs. For example, special cells and circuits in the brain (mirror neurons, mirror networks) register the impact and help us learn behaviors that we have seen in every day experience. We also know that the more times something is modeled (more examples), the more well learned the behavior. And, more sources of modeling (not just parents but others too such as, teachers, the media) to which a child is exposed, the greater the impact. Not all children are equally sensitive to these influences. And as parents we are often baffled that two of our children grew up in what seems to be the same home but are different in many ways. Lying could be one of those ways.
Given the influences I have noted; we should not be surprised when a child or adolescent lies. Studies of children and adolescents at different ages in the US have shown that lying peaks for boys at approximately at ages 10 – 11 and include 30 – 35% of boys. For girls, the rates are lower than boys at all ages but peak at about 8 – 9 years old to about 25%. The percentages are based on parental reports of lying and cheating as a problem and are illustrative. They do not consider differences that would be due to cultural, ethnic, or urban-rural, and other possible influences. Yet, two points are important to note. First, lying occurs in children and adolescents who are functioning well. Second, the peaks I have noted are followed by periods in which lying declines over time. So much of the lying will drop out just as a function of development.
Our Usual Parenting Practices often do not Work
That lying occurs in many children over the course of normal development does not mean one should do nothing or wait. Also, not all lying is equal in terms of severity, frequency, or consequences. And waiting and hoping that lying decreases is not helpful if you feel there is a problem that needs to be addressed, especially if your child is getting in trouble at school or outside the home in some other setting. The school may even be pressuring you and making you feel like you are the problem.
As parents, the two main strategies we routinely use are not very effective or at best are among the weaker interventions we could use to have impact on lying. First, reasoning and explaining why one should not lie often is a first line of trying to change lying. In general, reasoning and explaining things to children and adolescents are extremely valuable. They convey your thinking, teach reasonableness, show how calm you can be during conflict, and contribute to the important relationship you have. Yet, reasoning and explaining are not very useful in changing lying or other behaviors and building the habits you want. That is why one hears the familiar and frustrating parent refrain, “If I told you once, I told you a thousand times.” We as parents are shocked at having told the child and having the child “know” better and still do something. Yet from what we know from psychology (but also everyday life) knowing and doing often are oceans apart. As adults, we have our own knowing and doing “issues” in relation to things we know we should be doing more often such as exercising and eating certain foods and we know we should not be doing such as texting or speaking on the phone while driving or drinking too much alcohol.
Second, you may punish your child’s instances of lying to teach a lesson. This might seem reasonable; after all, there ought to consequences for lying. Research is fairly clear on that too—punishment can stop something at the moment (such as a child being mean to a sibling or engaging in some risky or forbidden behavior) but does not change the overall frequency of the behavior you have punished and does not teach what you would like (telling the truth). The child feeling bad, apologizing, and understanding might all be important, but these are not related to actually changing the behavior. Often parents escalate—increase the penalty and fine for the lie to make the point about its importance. A reprimand may move to shouting, threating to hit, hitting, or even worse. (Out of desperation to have impact, some parents I worked with have taken away the child’s upcoming Birthday celebration so there is no party with friends, no gifts, and nothing else in the home that day as a punishment.)
What Can a Parent Do?
Here are some things you can do that are likely to have impact on reducing lying. These would be applied when you feel lying is or is becoming a problem and your best efforts are not as effective as you would like. The best way to eliminate or reduce lying is to have the child practice telling the truth and having more modeling instances in which truth telling is exemplified. We are focusing on learning, developing a habit, and provide experiences that change the brain! The key concept is practice. Here are three concrete strategies that can help.
- Praise telling the truth. This can be accomplished in many ways. You could ask your child to say something that is true today that happened at school. It is not too critical what that is—this is practice and repeated practice and that will carry over to other situations including those in which lying is more significant. Each day, you could ask the child to tell you something – it could be 2 or 3 things that really happened today.When your child plays along and tells you about his day, you should praise him enthusiastically. Be specific and say something along the lines of “That was great! You told me what happened today just like I asked. Wow!” and lean over and give your child an affectionate touch such as a hug or a high five.Even if you are not intentionally practicing, chances are your child will say something true and confide in you. Praise that behavior when it occurs. You do not have to praise your child every time she says something factual. Aim for one or two times a day if possible.
- Model truth telling. Modeling means you as a parent explicitly tell the truth about something. This could be something that happened when you were a child or something that happened during the day. You can just say, “Let me tell you something that really happened today.” This need not be an emotionally loaded topic or something illegal. Anything that is true is fine to model. We want to model instances of truth telling—modeling teaches and the more instances of modeling teach even better.Another option would be to have a game at the beginning or end of dinner. Each person at the table tells one thing that was true that day. Give a little praise to the child who lies a bit she does that. The nice feature of this is that it includes modeling (of people at the table) and praise for telling the truth.
- Practice scenarios. If there is a time you can have with your child when you are both calm, consider playing a game in which you make up a hypothetical scenario involving two people and a situation in which one person could lie to the other. Then ask your child what would be a lie (what could the person say) and what would be the truth (an accurate statement). The most important part of the game is then saying ok, let us stand up and practice (role play) this brief situation. You take turns being the person who tells the truth. You do not model or practice the lie. If you can come up with interesting make-up situations and if you can involve the child in generating situations or answering what would be the true thing to say here, that would be ideal. This option is tricky because the first part (sitting and talking) is like reasoning and explanation: it is not likely to be effective in changing behavior but it can change knowledge. To change lying, the practice and role-playing component is critical.
But What if my Child DOES Lie?
If you happen to “catch” your child in a lie, be matter-of-fact and say something like, “That is not true and could get you in trouble outside of the home; remember it is better to say the truth.” You do not need harsh discipline to reduce undesired behaviors and as I noted that will not have the effects on reducing lying. Consider your comment as a very mild form of punishment—but your vocal tone should be as a matter of fact if you can. You are expressing mild disapproval. Remember as counterintuitive as it may sound, more severe punishment is not likely to more effective in changing the child’s behavior. Mild, moderate, and severe punishment are not likely to work if you are not doing something to develop the positive behavior you wish (telling the truth).
Deemphasize punishment. This are not likely to change behavior beyond that very moment you punish nor will it develop the positive behaviors you want. That does not mean ignoring lying or letting it go. Rather, use very mild punishment (light reprimand brief loss of privilege, a brief period of time out). More severe, harsh, or enduring punishments (shouting, taking away something for a week, hitting) are not more effective in changing the frequency of lying.
Develop the opposite behavior you want. Remember the key task is practicing truth telling. You will be tempted to moralize, “see how easy it is to tell the truth, you really shouldn’t lie anymore.” I am a parent and I view lecturing and moralizing as my right! Just keep in mind they are not effective ways of changing behavior.
How to try the suggested tools. Try one or more of the techniques for 2-3 weeks and see where you are. Often the special techniques can be stopped by then and lying is no longer a special problem. This depends on the number of times you can get the child practice saying the truth and you providing praise for that. It is not likely that lying will be eliminated—because of the many instances that children see in and out of the home and in the media.
You might say that, “this would never work for my child.” Yes, it is true that all people are different but we are also the same in many ways too. It is also true that nothing works for everyone. And if you are pleased with what you are doing and feel the impact is what you like, there may be no need to try any of these suggestions. We have used the procedures I mentioned very often and arrived at them not only from studying their effects but also the need to have something parents can see that works.
For Further Information
For further information and techniques that can be used to alter lying in the home, see my free on-line parenting course. In that course, there are brief sessions on the use of praise, positive opposites, and simulations (games) to change behavior. These are well researched techniques and are useful tools to have in your parenting tool kit when you need them and can be applied to lying.
Free-online Course: Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing. (ABCs stand for antecedents, behaviors, and consequences.)
Sample Session: A sample session (9-minute on the special way to use praise) is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/lK9L8r2U1XE