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"I Didn't Do It!"

Your child has just told his first lie. Don’t panic; there’s a good reason for it — and ways to foster truthfulness.

By Jennifer L. W. Fink | November , 2011
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The evidence was scrawled across the wall in bold red crayon: “Y-N-O-T.” But when confronted, Theresa Schuett’s 4-year-old son, Tony, denied writing the letters, despite the fact that he consistently signed his name backward. “He told me, ‘John did it!’” the Horicon, WI, mother of two recalls. “But his brother was 1 at the time and couldn’t even reach that high.”

Fortunately, Schuett had a sense of humor about the episode. Though she was unhappy about the wall, “I had to try not to laugh,” she says. “Tony had this look on his face like he knew it wasn’t a good thing to do.”

Schuett’s response was practically perfect, say experts. Instead of overreacting, she gently told Tony that she knew he was at fault, and she emphasized the importance of telling the truth. Her next step was to ask Tony to help her clean the wall, but like so many busy families, the two got distracted by a million other things. Twelve years later, the red letters still stare back at them. Tony, now 16, is an all-around good kid who tells the truth more often than not.

First Fib Shock

A child’s first few lies can leave you feeling outraged. Betrayed, even. But rest assured that they are a natural occurrence and not a sign that your child is destined for a life of crime. Rather, first lies — which tend to occur between the ages of 2 and 4 — represent a sophisticated mental leap forward. “A lie is actually a pretty complicated thing,” says Ashley Merryman, co-author of the parenting book NurtureShock. “To lie, a child has to comprehend that you, as a parent, do not know everything he knows. Then he has to construct an alternate reality — what he wants you to think. And he has to be able to hold both realities in his head without accidentally giving himself away.”

How you respond to your child’s lie is far more important than the fact that she has fibbed. Understanding the how and why of simple lies can help you develop age-appropriate responses that teach the importance of honesty. After all, you don’t want your child to simply stop lying. You want her to tell you the truth.

How Lying Develops
Before age 3, most children lack the cognitive skills necessary to lie. Sometime between the ages of 3 and 8, though, most children become startlingly proficient at it. In a study designed by Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., associate professor at McGill University in Canada, a group of 3-year-olds were seated in a room and told not to peek at a toy placed just out of sight while the researchers left the room. When later asked if they had peeked, only about half of the group attempted to lie. In the same study with 7-year-olds, the majority of kids avoided telling the truth.

At first, children lie because they can. “They reach a point developmentally where they realize that they can say something that’s not true,” says Tina Feigal, M.S.Ed., author of The Pocket Coach for Parents: Your Two-Week Guide to a Dramatically Improved Life with Your Intense Child. These lies are not a sign of moral failure, in either the parent or the child.

By age 7 and 8, most children lie for two reasons: to dodge punishment and to remain in your good graces. “Children figure out that if they say they didn’t do something, they may avoid the consequences,” Feigal says. Older children are also better than younger ones at reading human emotion and predicting responses. Since most of them want to make their parents happy, their lies may be a (misguided) attempt to provide the “right” answer. “The kid who tells you he didn’t break the vase, even in the presence of a broken vase, is literally telling you what you want to hear,” Merryman says. “He knows you would be upset about the vase, so he lies to make you happy.”

Ironically, kids of strict parents are actually more likely to lie than kids who come from more laid-back homes. “A child who knows that he gets spanked for wrongdoing may feel motivated to lie more,” says Merryman, “and he may become more skilled at it, because he knows getting caught will lead to punishment.”

Getting to the Truth
Like Theresa Schuett did, you want to resist the urge to overreact or preach. “A conversation about being a good person means nothing to 2- and 3-year-olds because they don’t possess that moral compass yet,” says Tammy Gold, founder of Gold Parent Coaching and a mother of three young girls.

Merryman advises: “Let your kids know that it will make you really happy if they tell the truth.” Many parents begin by sharing simple allegories, such as the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. You can also use stories from your own life to illustrate the value of honesty.

Susan Tordella, a parenting author and mother of four grown kids, suggests letting older kids know how their lies make you feel. “Take them somewhere private, describe what happened and why you don’t think they told the truth and then say something like, ‘When you lie, I feel disappointed,’” Tordella says.

Of course, few of these interventions will work if you lie. Children first learn to fib from adults. White lies are especially confusing to young children, Merryman says, so at the very least, only use them far away from small ears. Teach older kids better ways to spare others’ feelings. Instead of coaching your kids to say, “Oh, Grandma, I love it!” each time they receive one of her hand-knitted sweaters, for example, encourage them to comment on the effort or thought instead. (“Wow, Grandma! It looks like you put a lot of hard work into this one!”)

Expect to repeat the lessons over and over again, and don’t be afraid to admit your imperfections. “Kids raised with the idea that everyone makes mistakes are much more relaxed and less fearful. They don’t need to lie,” Feigal says.

When Your Child Lies
Experts suggest these techniques for responding to a child who puts truth on the back burner.

Take it seriously. It’s OK to disregard the early fibs of a 3- or 4-year-old, but if you consistently laugh at your child’s (admittedly amusing) tall tales, she’ll begin to think that lying is acceptable — and entertaining — behavior. Instead, gently remind her to tell the truth.

State the facts. If your child has chocolate and crumbs around his mouth and is clutching the remains of a chocolate chip cookie, don’t ask, “Did you eat the last cookie?” That simply sets your child up to lie, says Chelsea Gladden, a mother of five and co-founder of breezymama.com. State what you see (“I see that you ate the last cookie”) instead and start a conversation from there.

Bend but don’t break. Never punish a child for telling the truth, even if it involves admitting to a misdeed that’s forbidden by your family’s code of behavior. Consider offering a one-time pass — the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card — for kids who step forward to accept the blame.

Talk about honesty. Was there a story in the paper about a Good Samaritan who returned a wallet full of cash to its rightful owner? Share the story with your kids. Help them to see the value of honesty at work, at home, and in relationships.

Tell the truth. Seems obvious, right? But it’s so easy to fib! Be sure you mean what you say to your kids. Little kids interpret, “We’re going to the park tomorrow” as a fact, and if you don’t go, they think you’ve lied to them. And avoid white lies. Teaching kids to lie to spare others’ feelings only reinforces the idea that lies make people happy.

Get help if you need it.
If your usually truthful kid starts spouting lies, pay attention. A change in lying behavior usually warrants further investigation.

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