Discipline Dilemma: "Why Can't She Tell the Truth?"

Reform a little lying by tweaking old discipline tactics to fit new circumstances.
Nov 06, 2012



Knowing why kids lie at each age and stage helps you encourage candor, and so does your unconditional support. Your best bet: create a nurturing environment so your child knows she can talk to you about anything, anytime.

3 to 5: Preschoolers do not yet understand the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie, so responding in an angry or accusatory voice gets you nowhere. Instead of asking, "Did you spill the juice?", focus on what happened ("Hmmm, the juice spilled") and suggest a way to rectify the situation ("Let's get paper towels and wipe it up"). Tall tales and exaggerations ("I can do 1,000 cartwheels!") are also evidence of a rich imagination, not a deceitful child. "That's what you wish for, right?" acknowledges her dreams and gently clarifies the line between reality and fantasy.

6 to 10: Masters of denial, kids this age lie because they want to please you, squirm out of responsibility, or escape punishment. They may also lie to get what they want (permission to watch a TV show) or to win friends. Never call a child a liar, but make it clear that you won't tolerate dishonesty. Try saying, ''It's important to tell me the truth. I will still have to give you a consequence, but I won't be angry or yell at you — I'll be proud that you didn't lie.'' Let him know that everyone (even you) makes mistakes, and that you still love him, even if he did break your mother's porcelain vase. If he lies about a routine matter — say, not finishing his math homework — that didn't harm anyone or breach a safety rule, a disapproving look and a reminder that you expect him to tell the truth will get your message across ("Okay, buddy. It's important to keep up with your assignments. Let's look over that math sheet together").

11 to 14: Privacy is paramount, and he may "forget" to tell you something or omit certain details. (Technically, you see, he didn't have any homework tomorrow, but he has plenty due the day after, plus a science test Friday.) Friends and social status reach critical mass, so fabrications designed to avoid ridicule or impress peers multiply ("My Dad's taking me to the Super Bowl this year"). Instead of trying to "catch" him in a lie, make it clear that you know he's not being truthful and that you take lying — including lies of omission — seriously. ("That doesn't sound like the truth to me. Want to think for a minute and start over?")

Skip the lectures. A calm, steady voice, minus sarcasm or criticism, wins cooperation. When he admits the truth, acknowledge it and move on. Never embarrass a child in front of his peers, but do take him aside later and say, "The Super Bowl would be great, but you know it's not happening." Discipline only works when done in a way that makes your child feel valued and accepted, not criticized and shamed. "Kids this age are hungry for approval," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of No More Misbehavin'. "Giving praise widely when they do something right will guarantee a replay."

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Child Development and Behavior
Child Development and Behavior