Kids who lie, oh my

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 29, 2009 06:00 AM

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Nobody likes a liar which is why, as parents, we freak out when we think we have one on our hands.

Dear Barbara,

I have a 5-year-old boy and he is lately telling a lot of lies. My wife and I have tried sitting down with him to tell him the dangers of telling lives, and of course, included "The boy who cried wolf" tale as well. He either refuses to listen, or keeps reverting.

I know he's a little kid and telling fibs is par for the course, but he even does it with relatives or family friends. Do you have any advice?

From: David, Newburyport

Hi David,

Developmentally, there are a number of reasons why a child this age might lie: to avoid punishment, to get a perceived reward or to keep a promise. A more mature 5 might also lie to impress a peer or to challenge authority. At this point, your child might also be lying because he sees how much attention it's getting him. Kids just don't care that it's negative attention.

Because your goal is to help him not to lie, he needs to see you as understanding and approachable. After all, in 10 years, you want him to be able to conclude, "Even if I do something really stupid, my parents might understand. I can tell them the truth."

So how do you get from here to there?

You've already laid the ground work. You've established that in your family, you value honesty. Now put your money where your mouth is: Reward honesty, don't punish lying. The next time you know he's lying, don't accuse him of it; he'll only become more entrenched. Instead, tell him, "I'm not sure if you are being truthful. In our family, we value telling the truth, so before you say anything else, I want you to think more about this." Then walk away and give him some time.

If he admits to the truth, reward him: "Being honest took a lot of courage. I'm so proud of you for telling the truth, I'm not going to punish you." If (when?) it happens again, be clear that you still admire the truth but can't overlook the transgression but keep the consequence reasonable; you don't want him to think that telling the truth wasn't worth the effort: "I'm so glad you told the truth. Unfortunately, the plate is still broken, but since you were honest, I'll go easy on you. What do you think is a fair consequence?"

Don't trap your child into a lie. If you find evidence that he's lied, be straightforward. Present what you found and give him the opportunity to own up. If he still lies, try this: "I don't think you are telling the truth. I'm not happy to have a rule broken, but I'm even less happy if someone lies about it."

By the way, the single biggest influence on whether a child lies is whether parents do. If you say you value truthfulness, make sure you model it, too!

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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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