Liar, liar, pants on fire: Children and lying

“It wasn’t me, somebody else did it.” That somebody else lives in most households.

Avery, age 2 tells her mother on the way home from day care, “Ivy bite me.” Mom wonders why no adult told her this when she picked up her child. “Where did she bite you?” asks mom. “Ivy bite me,” answers Avery. Upon arrival at home mom checks Avery and finds no bite marks. She tells Avery, “Ivy did not bite you.” “Ivy bite me,” is the reply once again from the two year old. Mom wonders why Avery would lie about this. What else does she lie about? Is little Avery destined to be a pathological liar?

According to Michael Brody, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Potomac, Maryland, the answer is no. Avery just doesn’t understand the concept of lying at this age. Since Avery herself has struggled with biting, mom says; “Biting hurts, we don’t bite our friends.” Avery echoes, “No bite friends.” Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character doesn’t advocate punishment or pushing for the truth with this age group because 2-year-olds are still figuring out self-control. The mom in this case handled the incident appropriately by stating, “Ivy did not bite you.” Avery understands that and would not understand her mother telling her that she knew she was lying.

Jump from toddlerhood to the teen years. By the time a child becomes a teen they’ve had experiences related to lies, hopefully with mostly negative consequences, but the reality is there have also been positive. Some lies that may sound familiar include: “I don’t have any homework,” “I forgot,” “I’m fine” and “I always wear my seatbelt.” Why do children lie? Children lie most often to avoid punishment, blame and self-preservation. There is also social pressure to be less than honest to spare another’s feelings. Children lie because they hear adults lie. Adults lie to children on a regular basis. “Buster is now living on a farm where he has lots of room to run.” Or, “If you don’t go to sleep Santa will not bring presents.” And another, “I can’t bake four dozen cookies because my oven isn’t working.” Seemingly simple lies, but lies none the less, and it sets a precedence.

How can lying be stopped? Parents need to have a serious discussion with each other and in turn, with the entire family. The following hints from Michigan State University Extension will help.

  • Establish that lying is not something your family allows.
  • Make certain that the rule applies to parents also. Children are watching and listening all the time!
  • Have a conversation about what is the truth and what is a lie.
  • Develop detective skills. If you think your child is lying check up on them; contact another parent or your child’s teacher.
  • If you lie, own it and accept the responsibility with everybody in the family.

Liar, liar pants on fire. The history behind this phrase is somewhat confusing, but there’s nothing confusing about lies. You’ve all seen and heard; your child, 3-years-old comes to you with really big eyes and says, “Somebody went in my closet and wrote on the wall.” Parents ask; “Was it you?” “No,” is the emphatic reply. “No” – it’s the invisible sibling named, “Somebody.” Somebody ate the last cookie, somebody broke the window and somebody left the door open. Most children lie at one time or another and by following the guidelines mentioned in this article, the situation can be handled by parents. If your child’s lying begins to cause problems at home or school; seek professional help. If you aren’t sure where to find help; ask your school counselor or your community mental health agency.

For more information and/or workshops related to family relationships and child development contact your local MSU Extension office.

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