First things first. Lying is early childhood is not a sign of delinquency. Your child will not be thrown into the slammer just because of one lie. “Children start telling lies more or less at the point they learn language”, says Ian Leslie in his book Born Liars. Because children below four years old are incapable of lateral thinking, these toddlers say what they say in order to prevent themselves from getting into trouble, he adds.
Kelvyanne Teoh agrees. The Principal Therapist at Morning Star Community Services, a local community service project which aims to enrich and strengthen family relationships, tells us that a child’s ability to deceive could start from any age.
Sometimes, a child may lie because she is confused about how to react to a situation. From parents, children receive mixed messages about lying. They are taught that lying is wrong, yet they are scolded when they tell grandma that they have re-gifted the birthday present which she gave them last year. As children grow up, they learn that it is not so much that they should not lie, as when they should do it.
Lies can happen by mistake, by omission, denial, minimisation, exaggeration or fabrication. The last is the worst kind of lie – deliberately inventing a false story.
Parents of younger children may be amused when their children tell a convincing lie. After all, a well-told lie reflects a creative intellect. It means that the child is able to imagine an alternate version of reality. As Leslie says: “Even very simple lies can require a leap of imagination.”
But when the child is no longer a toddler, it would probably be less amusing to hear lies from him or her. Yet, great liars are usually good readers of human behavior and mind. They also have “higher-order mental skills” which means they can think ahead, strategise and reason while exerting the physical and emotional self-control to appear innocent.
Indeed, children do seem to express much creativity in the way they fabricate their tall tales. You may have heard of those who tell their parents that they had gone for tuition lessons or were staying back in school to complete their work, when they had actually gone out with friends.
As parents, we may be able to sense when our children are not being truthful. This could be though parent’s intuition, reports from a third party, or just a sense of jittery on the child’s part. And while knowing that your child has deliberately set out to tell you an untruth can hurt, it is best to stay level-headed and try to explore the reasons behind his actions. Kelvyanne provides some suggestions on how to react when our children stray from the truth.
Adopt a calm mood before talking to the child. This is important as parents need to be the voice of reason. When lies are met with physical punishment, the lies only will get better and more convincing. Still, you probably want your child to understand the scope of his actions. What would be an appropriate consequence for a lying child? Think additional chores or missing a favorite TV show.
Use it to Teach
Use the incident as a teachable moment. Children may lie to cover up their wrongdoings such as accidentally breaking a vase. Tell the child, “You will not get into trouble for breaking the vase because it was an accident. We can clean up the mess together. If you had lied about it, you would have to bear the consequences and it would be difficult for us (parents) to trust you.”
Some children hide their homework. In this case, help your child to understand that this behavior is not helpful and that he will eventually be found out. Your child should also realise that his homework will still have to be completed and that there will be consequences because of the misbehavior. In this way he would end up with more work to do, than if he had simply done his homework in the first place.
Investigate the Reason
To nip the problem in the bud, stay objective and try to discover the underlying issue behind the lies. Your child may have tried to avoid doing his homework because he did not know how to complete it. Or the amount of work to be done could have been overwhelming. You can help your child to explore possible solutions such as engaging a tutor, asking for help from his teacher, or breaking the work into manageable chunks.
Teach your child to Negotiate
At a parenting workshop that Morning Star Community Services conducts, parents are taught how to coach children to ask for permission or negotiate for playtime so that they do not have to resort to lying.
If, after employing all the above measures, your child continues to lie to you, there is probably a deeper underlying issue that needs to be understood and addressed, says Kelvyanne. In this case, she advises, professional counselling would be best.