Most parents are horrified the first time they catch their kid out in a lie. We think that, generally, decent people — the type of people we want our children to become — don't lie. Just how worried should you be if your little one has started fibbing, and how can you encourage them to tell the truth?
According to child and teen psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva, MD, lying can actually be a sign of healthy development in young children.
"Kids lie for many reasons, and much of it is normal," DeSilva says. "People are not born with the tools and know-how of interacting with others and getting their needs met. They must learn how to communicate those needs in appropriate ways, and they'll experiment with different communication styles and techniques until they find the ones that work best for them. Lying is one of those techniques."
For instance, at age two or three, kids may lie as they experiment with pushing limits to see what behaviors are acceptable and what aren't. Some toddlers may not even realize they are lying, says licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, PhD. "They may be shaping answers in a way to get them something they want, like a toy or a sweet, or to get out of something they don't want, like a chore or a punishment," she explains.
As kids get older, they become more aware of how their actions affect others, Dr. English says. Many lie less frequently because they know it could hurt someone else's feelings or erode trust. "From about age 8 onward, children begin developing a more expansive idea of what is right and wrong and they may be less focused on themselves and their own incentives," Dr. English says.
This is borne out by research. One study, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that teens were most likely to consider lying acceptable behavior if it was to help somebody or keep a personal secret, but not if it was likely to cause harm to somebody.
Just because lying is, in most cases, normal, doesn't mean it should be ignored. If you know your child is lying, what should you do? "When a child lies, look at them directly and ask, 'What do you need?'" Dr. DeSilva says. "After they tell you, gently remind them that telling you directly will be more effective than lying."
As with many things in parenting, it's a good idea to model the behavior you want to see in your kids. In other words, don't lie to your children. This "will set you and your children on a course of open communication, trust, and satisfaction that needs and wants are understood and met," Dr. DeSilva says. She makes it clear to her young patients, and her own child, that she won't tell them "something that I don't believe in or that is a lie."
But what about white lies? This is where it gets a little tricky. After all, you're probably already guilty of telling your kids a range of relatively harmless non-truths — about things like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, or glossing over the harsh realities of things like death or illness. "This may be because the children don't have the emotional maturity to hear and then handle the full truth," says Dr. English. But she recommends only using a white lie as a last resort.
In some cases, lying is a sign of a deeper issue. "A child who is neglected will lie more than a child who has attentive and responsive parents," Dr. DeSilva says. "A child who has experienced trauma may lie to try to hide their shame, avoid acknowledging their needs, or to manipulate their surroundings to ensure their safety."
By paying attention to the reasons behind a fib, parents can figure out if there's a need that's not being met. For example, while a child might lie about completing their homework in order to keep playing video games, they also might be trying to avoid negative feelings and anxieties associated with school work, says therapist Gideon Javna, LCSW.
Generally, a child who lies is little cause for concern, Javna says. "Parents often look for deeper meanings when a child misbehaves or acts out," he says. "It's important to remember that children are not just 'less functional adults' learning to be 'more functional adults.' Rather, children develop in unique stages and are constantly exploring, testing boundaries, and trying to figure things out."
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