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Whilst lying is often seen as a negative action that deserves punishment, it is simply a fact of life that many children lie on a regular basis. As soon as kids learn the power of untruths, they will start to use them as a tool to serve a number of ends. This could include making up an excuse as to why they have failed to complete their homework or coming up with lies about their home lives in order to impress classmates. So how can parents, guardians, and teachers spot a lie? And what is the correct punishment for a lying child?

Why do children lie?

Many parents believe that their children lie for negative reasons such as to avoid the consequences of their actions or to obtain something for selfish reasons. Whilst these motivations are very real and, indeed, common, there are a number of less obvious reasons why children might shy away from the truth. These include:

1. To try out new ideas

Testing out new behaviors and their consequences is a fundamental part of growing up. When kids discover lying, therefore, they will want to see how it operates. They will ask themselves questions such as:

“What will lying do for me?”

“Can I use lying to get out of certain situations?”

“How will this person react to a lie?”

2. To get away from the spotlight

Whilst some kids thrive on attention, others may try to shy away from the spotlight by telling lies. This is particularly true of kids with anxiety or depression who want to avoid discussing their thoughts and feelings. They may, for example, tell adults that they are feeling fine when they are actually feeling down and despondent.

3. To boost their self-esteem

Children who seek validation due to a lack of confidence may tell grandiose untruths about their talents or personal lives in order to boost their social status and impress others.

4. They may have difficulty controlling their impulses

Children with ADHD – a common condition that affects a person’s capacity to control their impulses – may lie more frequently than their peers. This is because kids with ADHD often talk before they have had a chance to think and, once they have told a lie, will try and run with it.

5. They have learned to tell white lies

White lies are the untruths we tell in order to spare a person’s feelings or to avoid conflict. In this way, they represent an essential social skill that actually demonstrates a child’s ability to empathize with others. In this way, they should not be punished.

How to deal with a child that lies

Before punishing a child for lying, it is important to consider the function of the lie and the circumstances under which it took place. Some untruths are more serious than others and it is important to ascertain the child’s motivations before giving them a punishment for lying. Trying to evade chores, for example, is a common behavior that should be punished appropriately. Habitual or compulsive lying or lying that causes another person serious harm, however, may indicate an underlying psychological issue that should be addressed carefully. To ascertain the seriousness of a lie and work out how to punish a child for lying, it may be helpful to measure the untruth according to the following scale:

Level 1

A level 1 lie is generally told in order to attract attention from parents or peers. It tends to be harmless and may derive from a place of poor self-esteem. If, for example, your child tells you that they scored the highest test score in the class when you know that not be the case, do not punish them. Rather, try to ignore the untruth and redirect the conversation.

Level 2

Level 2 lies tend to be a little more fantastical than level 1 lies. It may be long and multi-faceted and your child may have fun making up a series of obvious untruths. If this is the case, point out that their actions are generally considered to be wrong and that they should reflect on their behavior.

Level 3

Level 3 lies are the most serious and should usually be followed up by some kind of punishment such as extra chores or loss of certain privileges. Whilst it may be tempting to dole out harsh consequences for lying kids, ensuring that they are short-lived will give the child an opportunity to start practicing more acceptable behaviors.

Depending on the severity of the lie, it may also be worth getting the child to address their wrongdoing directly. If, for example, they lied to avoid doing their homework, make them sit down and do all of the work that they have missed. You could also get them to write an apology note to their teacher.

How to help kids avoid lying to begin with

Although lying is a normal part of growing up and, in this way, almost an inevitability, there are ways and means to reduce harmful forms of lying. These include:

1. Offering children second chances

If you ask your child a question and receive an answer that you know is a lie, do not immediately accuse them of wrongdoing. Rather, let them know that you are going to ask them again after ten minutes. When you return, tell them that you will be happy if they decide to change their mind and that you want a different answer. If they concede that they were lying, do not punish them. Simply let them know that you were conducting a simple “truth check”.

Truth checks are useful as they mitigate the impulsive element of lying. Given the extra ten minutes, most children will have time to reflect on the consequences of their actions and eventually come round to telling the truth. Practicing truth-telling in this way will help your child understand the value of honesty and will mitigate their chances of telling lies in the future. It should be noted, however, that this technique will not usually work on a child who lies habitually.

2. Letting them know that telling the truth can reduce negative consequences

Take, for example, a situation in which your teenager has been drinking alcohol at a party after sneaking out and defying their curfew. Imagine that they have become too inebriated to get themselves home and need picking up. As a parent, you naturally want them to call you to be picked up rather than risk their own safety stumbling home in the dark.

When they call you to admit their mistake, therefore, it is worth planning your course of action carefully. Your child needs to know that you are unhappy with their drinking and that they will be facing consequences for defying your wishes. It is also worth acknowledging, however, that their willingness to confess and tell the truth is worthy of praise and demonstrates that they are trustworthy. You could even reduce the punishment somewhat. Rather than confiscating their digital devices for a whole week, for example, you could take them away for a day.

A word of warning for parents who use this technique: do not allow kids to negotiate the severity of their punishment. This sort of bargaining can encourage manipulative behavior and your kids may start to use honesty as a negotiating tool.

3. Make some concessions for kids with ADHD

Remember that ADHD is a complex condition that can make kids much more prone to telling impulsive lies. In this way, it is important that you give them time to think about their answers before answering your questions. If, for example, you ask a child whether they have finished their homework and they immediately answer in the affirmative, it is worth asking them to double-check their assignment through to ensure that they have told the truth.

4. Allow your kids to make mistakes

Parents who remind their kids that they are loved unconditionally often find that their kids are able to be more honest. Reminding your child that you know that people make mistakes and that you accept their flaws may give them the confidence to open up to you. Kids who are scared of their parents’ judgment are more likely to go to great lengths to cover up the truth if they make a mistake.

5. Set up some family rules about lying

Laying down some ground rules about lying for the whole family to follow will give your child clear guidelines about how to conduct themselves. It will also make them feel like part of a team, encouraging them to improve their behavior so as not to let the family down.

Steps to avoid as a parent

1. Do not call your child a liar

Try not to use the word “liar” to describe your child. This can be very hurtful and could cause a great deal of psychological harm. Your child may even start to think that you will never believe them again, thereby creating a cycle of habitual lying.

2. Do not play games

If you know that child has told a lie and are aware of the true version of events, do not play along and set traps for them. Instead, address the issue directly and cut the lie short before they continue down a path of deception. Revealing that you knew the story all along will instill a sense of mistrust towards you and may, again, cause psychological damage.