So you’ve caught your kid lying to you. Obviously, this pisses you off. How dare they! You’re their mother, for Crissakes. They owe you. Most mamis I asked said without hesitation that if you catch your kid lying, you lay down the law and teach them that it’s bad to lie. Period. No ifs, ands or buts. Truth, good. Lying, bad. Right?
Research out of the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto suggests that an ability to lie effectively as a child points to later success in life. That’s right. Kids who lie do better in life than kids who don’t. This doesn’t mean you try to raise a sociopath, but it does mean that we as moms might think hard about the nuances of lying, and how we handle it when our kids do it.
While lying is distasteful to most of us, when kids lie, it actually shows a couple of positive things. One, they’re smart. Smart people lie better than stupid people, and the earlier your kid starts to lie, the smarter they probably are. Two, they’re developing “executive function” in the brain, which is to say the ability to know the truth but to keep it in the back of the mind while solving a problem another way.
LIARS MORE SUCCESSFUL
Dr. Kang Lee, director of the Toronto study, told the London Telegraph that lying in kids might mean they’ll end up as good bankers or politicians someday. While we can go round and round about the moral and ethical questions this raises we cannot debate the fact that having a successful banker or a President for a grown child means that grown child probably won’t be living in our basement.
Everyone lies. Even your kid. And it’s not the end of the world.
According to Bella De Paulo, PhD, a professor at the University of Virginia, no one—let me repeat, no one—can go three weeks without lying. She challenges her students to try this every year, and every year they fail.
“Everyday lies are really part of the fabric of social life,” DePaulo said in an interview with Psychology Today, adding that while some lies destroy relationships and trust, others serve to smooth over unpleasant situations or “protect fragile egos.”
HOW TO HANDLE YOUR LYING CHILD
So. In a world where, if we’re honest about it, lying is not only common but seemingly necessary (at some level) but truth-telling is extremely important, how should we as parents handle it when we discover our kids lying to us? The impulse, of course, is to say something like “you should never lie,” but that statement, taken literally, is a lie—and kids know it. Our kids see us lying all the time. Take the time my son and I were at a wedding, and I whispered to a friend that I thought the bride’s dress was unflattering, only to later tell the bride she looked beautiful. My son heard both, and asked about it. How do you explain that it’s okay to lie sometimes, and not okay to lie other times? Well, you pretty much do it by saying exactly that.
According to clinical psychologist Victoria Samuel, who blogs for Supernanny.com, the first step in handling your kid’s lying is to understand their reasons for doing it. Usually, the reasons are about the same as they are for the rest of us. Kids, like other humans, want to avoid consequences, break rules and boost their self-esteem. Once you have a handle on why your kid is lying, take a good hard look at yourself and your parenting to see if maybe, just maybe, you have something to do with it. If, for example, your kid “repeatedly lies to avoid discipline,” says Samuel, “perhaps the consequences you’re using are so harsh that the child is afraid to tell the truth.” For kids to be truthful, there should be an environment where honesty, even unflattering or painful honesty, is actually acceptable.
The next step? Encourage honesty. Don’t yell at the kid, don’t call them names like “liar” and for the love of la Virgin de Guadalupe do not go ballistic and start telling your kid how much he or she reminds you of their sinverguenza (shameless) father. Don’t keep asking questions about the lie if you already know it happened and why. State clearly that you know a lie was committed, instead of questioning the child in order to get a “confession.” This isn’t about shaming your child, it’s about teaching them. Let the kid know that you know they’ve lied, describe the problem, and then ask your child to help you come up with solutions to the problem. The calmer and more reasonable you stay, the better example you will set.
Samuel suggests that you next teach your child why lying “doesn’t work,” but I’m not sure that’s completely correct. I think you teach your child why lying “usually doesn’t work, but sometimes does,” and then explain clearly the difference between big lies and “little white lies” and how devastating ruptured trust can be for any relationship.
Dr. Lee’s research has shown that truth-telling increases among younger children when they’re read books, such as George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Pinocchio, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Consequences should be imposed for lying in children older than 6, says Samuel. Be careful that in your own anger or sense of betrayal you do not overdo the consequences because this might just encourage more lying later. Make sure the kid knows that honesty will be rewarded, and not only that lying will be punished.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
Finally, set a good example. This doesn’t mean being honest all of the time in front of your child, but it does mean being honest about having lied in front of your child, if the kid asks about it. In the case of the wedding dress, I told my son that sometimes you tell a little lie to protect someone else’s feelings. We talked about what might have happened if I’d told the bride that I thought her dress sucked, at the wedding, and he understood that in that moment it did not make sense to “insult” her. A good rule of thumb, we decided, was that if a “white lie” was told in order to avoid hurting someone else, it was probably better than a big, selfish lie that was told in order to make ourselves look great or to avoid consequences for our own mistakes.
Being honest about lying means admitting that we all lie, but explaining the nuances of how, when and why we do it.
Want to know how to spot a liar? Here’s how.