Marion is upset. “My 10-year-old son is lying all the time. If I ask him if he’s done his homework, he says ‘sure’ even if I know he hasn’t. Ask him where he’s headed and he’ll look me straight in the face and tell me he’s going to a friend’s house when I just know he’s got somewhere else in mind. Ask him if the sky is blue and he’ll probably tell you it’s not. What worries me most is how smooth he is. It’s gotten so I never know when to believe him. What can we do to stop this before he turns into a con artist?”
Lying is something that seems to unhinge a great many parents. Yes, it’s worrisome. Yes, we want our children to be honest, especially with us. But before we see every stretch of the truth as an indication that the kid will land in the pen, it’s important to understand what’s behind the lies. All lying isn’t the same. All “lies” aren’t even lies.
Kids aren’t born with a moral code. It’s something they have to figure out. Most kids most of the time want to figure it out. They get it that there are social rules. They watch us adults constantly to see what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to negotiate their world. The need for truthtelling and the ability to understand the concept of lying are things that kids grow into as they grow.
- From birth to 3, kids are in a highly confusing world where they are dependent on adults for their very survival. Often what looks like “lies” are either honest mistakes or efforts to protect themselves or to mollify the grownups. They take their cue from our tone of voice. “Did you break the jar?” said angrily is likely to get a “Not me” response. “Did you eat the cookie?” “Not me!” Of course not. Kids don’t want to be in trouble with the adults they depend on. The angry tone in the adult’s question scares them. They just want to make things feel safe again.
- Children from ages 3 to 7 are still figuring out the difference between fantasy and reality. They create imaginary worlds in their play. Sometimes they’re not clear where their creations leave off and the real world begins. We adults often find it cute and participate in the fantasies. Many of us have set a place at the dinner table for the imaginary friend. We encourage belief in the tooth fairy and Santa. No wonder they’re sometimes confused. We don’t want to shut down their creativity but we do want to help them sort out when it’s appropriate to tell tall tales and when it’s not.
- From ages 5 to 10, kids gradually develop an understanding of what it means to lie. If they’ve been raised in a home and neighborhood and school where there are clear rules about the importance of telling the truth, they will do their best to comply. They want to be “big kids.” They want adult approval. They want to be on the side of truth and justice. Kids being kids, they will also monitor one another – and us. They’re the ones who will shout “liar liar, pants on fire” when they spot one.
- Over 10? They know perfectly well when they are stretching the truth or outright lying. Other reasons kick in that are just as compelling as developmental understanding.
Other reasons for lying: Social issues overlap with developmental ones. The older kids get, the more likely one or more of these reasons factors in:
- Mistakes. Sometimes kids lie without thinking and then dig themselves in deeper. Mom says angrily, “Who let the dog out?” Kid automatically says, “Not me!” Oops. He knows he did. You know he did. He knows you know he did. Now what’s he going to do? “Well. Maybe it was the wind that opened the door.” Uh-huh. The truth gets more and more tangled. The kid knows the jig is up but doesn’t want to admit it. The mom is getting more and more angry. Oh boy. . . Now there are three problems: The original issue, the lying, and mom’s anger.
- Fear. Related to those unthinking lies are the lies of fear. When the adults in a kid’s life are dangerous (violent, irrational, or overpunishing), kids get so worried about the consequences to fessing up to a misdemeanor they try to avoid it altogether. Understandable. No one likes to be yelled at, hit, or confined to quarters.
- To get out of doing something they don’t want to do. “Have you done your math homework?” says a dad. “Oh yeah. I did it when I got home today,” says the middle school son. Son hates math. Son doesn’t like feeling like a failure because he doesn’t understand it. Son doesn’t want to struggle with it. Better to “lie.” Hopefully the math room will have fallen into a sinkhole before math class tomorrow so he won’t have to deal with it.
- Not understanding when it’s socially appropriate to lie and when it isn’t. It’s a formula question: “How are you?” The formula answer is “Fine.” But what if you’re not fine? Is it a lie to say you are? When someone asks a friend “Do these jeans make me look fat?”; “How do you like my new sweater?”; “Do you think I’ll make the team?” – they aren’t necessarily looking for an honest answer. How’s a kid supposed to understand that?
- As a way to fit in. Kids who are less than sure about their standing in the cliques and crowds of middle and high school sometimes fall in with less than upstanding peers. They start to lie as a way to be “cool.” They lie to win peer approval. They lie to cover for each other and cover their tracks when they’ve done something they shouldn’t. They lie about lying.
- Parental limits that are too strict. When parents won’t allow them to gain some independence, teens almost have to be devious to grow normally. Parents who won’t let their girls date until they are 30, who demand straight A’s in order to have the privilege of going out, or who micro-monitor their child’s every activity and relationship set up a situation where kids feel trapped. Tell the truth and they don’t get to do normal, typical teenage things. Lie and they do get to be normal teens but they feel horrible about the lying.
- Monkey see, monkey do. It’s hard to hold a teen to driving at the speed limit if a parent uses a “Fuzz-buster” to avoid the consequences of speeding. If a parent calls in “sick” when a work project isn’t done on time, the kids understandably don’t get why it’s a big deal to skip school or to call in sick to their jobs. When a parent brags about cheating on their income tax or a financial aid form, it tells kids that it’s okay to lie as long as you don’t get caught. They inevitably try out what they’ve observed at home and are often stunned when parents don’t see them as simply doing as the adults do.
- And sometimes, rarely, lying is an indication of an emerging mental illness like conduct disorder or pathological lying. Usually there is more than one symptom besides the lying. These are the kids who often become so adept at it, they lie whether they need to or not. It’s a reflex, not a considered manipulation.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2010). When a Child Lies. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/when-a-child-lies/0004855
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.