My Kid Is Lying! How to navigate lying, cheating and stealing with your kids (Episode 108)
Help - my kid is lying! What do you do when your child starts lying, stealing or cheating? We never want to imagine our precious children being deceptive, yet it’s way more common than you’d hope. Deceptive behavior in kids - how do you handle when our children personify our fears and do things that we believe are morally wrong?
This week I had a question from Melissa, who reached out asking what to do about her 4 year old son lying. Just wait until you hear this story!
Lying, cheating and stealing - natural consequences for the win!
First Off, Don't React!
So here was Melissa’s issue - she has three sweet children, and her youngest son has discovered lying!! Now, although our biggest fears come out and we are just sure the rest of the world will judge, take a deep breath. Don’t react. It’s a-ok. (To hear Melissa's story, you'll have to tune in to the podcast episode above!)
When our kids personify our fear - our first gut reaction may be to flip out, immediately give a consequence and question your parenting abilities. Slooooow down! Get to the root of it and put it into perspective.
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Take time to think it through before you react.
Make sure your response today is the same as it would be tomorrow after you've cooled down.
First, you want to look at where your children are developmentally:
- From birth to age 3, kids are in a completely new environment constantly, almost entirely dependent on adults for their very survival. Often what looks like a “lie” can be an honest mistake, a simple desire for self-protection, or just agreeing with parents because they want to connect.
- Children ages 3-7 are still figuring out the difference between fantasy and reality. They create imaginary worlds in their play, and sometimes what is real and imaginary can get mottled.
- From ages 5-10, children will gradually develop an understanding of what it means to lie. At this point, they are starting to navigate what they can get away with and understand real consequences to their actions. This understanding completely varies based on their developmental maturity, so give a little grace as they figure things out. (We’ll dive more into this below!)
- Over 10? Now is a whole different ballgame. This is when things get REAL. Again, we’ll address this further down.
Keep the conversation going, and dig deeper!
Check out these articles we pulled for insights for this post and podcast episode:
- 10 Essential Lessons For Life: Natural Consequences
- Every Action Has A Consequence (Episode 30)
- Natural Consequences, Discipline…or Punishment
- 10 Essential Lessons for Life: Pick Your Battles
- 5 Ways to Deal With A Child Who Lies
- Why Do Children Lie, Cheat or Steal?
- How To Deal With Lying Children And Teens
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Why Do Kids Lie?
According to this article,
“Lying may be the most common underage offense. A kid will start telling you things that aren’t true long before he even realizes it’s naughty (for instance, that chocolate-smeared baby who shakes his head when asked whether he ate the cookie). When he starts to understand that he’s bending the truth—as early as age three or four—it’s actually a sign of cognitive development. That’s because to purposefully tell a lie, you first need a grasp on reality. Next you need the wherewithal to create an alternative reality, and finally you need the brainpower and the gumption to try to convince someone that a fiction is the truth.
“When preschoolers first lie, they’re testing out a new ability,” says Victoria Talwar, a professor of developmental psychology at McGill University, in Montreal, who has done extensive research on kids and lying. “They’re realizing they can have thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs all their own.”
One study at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, that observed kids at home found that some four-year-olds lied once every two hours; some six-year-olds lied at a clip of every 90 minutes. Lying typically peaks between the ages of 6 and 10; it decreases as kids grow older and start to understand the consequences of lying and the likelihood of getting busted.
Reasons For Lying
There are many reasons why children lie - here are a few:
Is Lying a Moral Issue?
Now, is lying really a moral issue? It's hard to not completely take it personally when your kid is lying, feeling like you've failed as the parent! So often, however, there is something else going on.
Is it a developmental process and they are navigating their imagination and reality? Is there a deeper issue they feel they need to hide? What is the behavior behind the lie?
Remember, your anger and mortification is not going to change your child's behavior. There has to be a deeper understanding of why it's not acceptable.
I love how this article lays it out:
"Lying is not a moral issue; it’s a problem–solving issue, a lack of skill issue, and an avoiding consequence issue. Often kids know right from wrong—in fact, that’s why they’re lying. They don’t want to get in trouble for what they’ve done and they’re using lying to solve their problems. What that means is that they need better skills, and you can respond as a parent by helping them work on their ability to problem solve."
What Can I Do When My Kid Is Lying?
Here are 5 tips we curated from this article to share with you:
- Model The Behavior You Want - In one University of Massachusetts study, 60 percent of adult participants admitted to telling two or three inaccuracies or blatant lies in a single 10-minute conversation. If you want your children to be honest, be the example, and remember they are watching!
- Rephrase your Questions - Don't set them up for a lie, but help them explore which option to answer. For example, instead of asking, "Did you walk the dog when you got home from school?", try, "Do you plan on walking Buster right before you do your homework or right after dinner?” If your child hasn’t walked the dog yet, he can save face by focusing on a plan of action rather than inventing a story.
- Explore Avoidant Behavior - Are they lying because they are avoiding something? Is there a deeper fear to address that may be the reason for the lie?
- Appreciate Honesty - When your children do fess up, make sure you first and foremost show your appreciation for their honesty, even if you are frustrated with what they did. Recognize the maturity in being truthful, even when it's hard.
- Have Natural - or Intentional - Consequences - make sure the consequence directly relates to the infringement.
When you are navigating consequences, make sure the consequence matches the incident. For example, catching a child lying about drawing on a wall shouldn't result in her not getting to watch a movie. A better consequence would be only supervised drawing, or taking markers/whatever they used away for a stretch as she earns your trust back.
A natural consequence directly relates to the undesired action. As much as possible, look for natural consequences to help them learn - and sometimes this happens on its own, like being cold when they refuse to wear that jacket. Lesson learned for next time!
A kid who lies about watching TV when they were supposed to be cleaning should lose an evening of TV, not dessert. That way he’s more likely to reflect on the consequences of what he did and (hopefully) not repeat it.
But What About The Gray Areas?
This post lays it out well:
Even preschoolers can appreciate the importance of the polite (or “prosocial”) lie, says Angela Crossman, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City.
In one recent study, children ages 3 to 11 were given a bar of soap and asked whether they liked the gift. Almost 75 percent of kids in the three-to-five age group said yes, even though they later confessed they had been less than honest. (Older kids were even more scrupulous liars: 84 percent claimed to like the gift.)
When you have to tell a little prosocial untruth in front of your child, the best strategy is to acknowledge it later and tell her why you did it, says Crossman: “Explain you’ve been a little dishonest to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Kids can understand why someone wouldn’t want their feelings hurt.”
Beyond Lying: Stealing and Cheating
Here are a few more resources for you when it comes to stealing and cheating, gathered from this post:
Cheating begins in earnest at age five or six. Like lying, it’s a sign of cognitive progress: A kid first has to be aware of the rules and then comprehend that it’s wrong to break them.
When your small competitor rolls a six and sneakily moves eight spots, don’t let it slide, advises Sparrow: “Say you understand how badly he wants to win, but explain that it would be boring if he always won.” And make sure you play the game often, so the child gets good enough to win fair and square.
Hopefully by age eight, his moral compass will help him realize that cheating taints the thrill of victory. (Unfortunately, this may not apply to cheating in school, which is complicated by a number of other factors, including parents’ and teachers’ expectations and peer pressure.)
Your Weekly Challenge:
Get proactive. Talk about lying, cheating and stealing with your children. Not just about how it’s wrong, but how it happens and what natural consequences are.
See if you can come up with some scenarios that fit your family story to help them navigate how to handle certain situations - the more specific you are with examples, the better!
We are all doing the best we can with what we know at the time. We may be a genius today…have grace, flexibility, and a growth mindset. Celebrate your strengths. Recognize your triggers. And remember, the uniqueness in each of us strengthens all of us.