What Should Parents Do About Lying?

Solutions the Lucy Daniels Center
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Few things upset parents more than when their child lies. There is no single reason for why children lie, but there are some general points that may provide a little guidance. 

Young children, particularly age 5 and younger, have to develop the ability to understand the truth and do the right thing. They must learn what is right and what is wrong, and come to understand the importance of telling the truth. They are gradually developing their senses of morality and of guilt about actions that go against their ideas of right and wrong.

Younger children also believe what they want to believe. When they are not truthful, they may be telling a story they believe is truthful because they have convinced themselves. Although it is a gradual process, by age 5 or 6, children can be expected to have sufficiently mastered these developmental tasks so they have a strong sense of conscience and are able to tell the truth. But there are not many children who don’t ever fall off the honesty wagon. 

Why is that?


Telling the Truth

Every adult can remember times when he or she has struggled about whether to tell the truth, even if for an instant. There is a balance of forces within children and adults that affect each and every decision we make about telling the truth. 

The strongest factor on the side of telling the truth is our inner guide — our conscience — and its major enforcement power: Its ability to make us feel guilty if we violate what it asks of us. Another reason to tell the truth is more pragmatic: We risk negative consequences when we misbehave. However, these reasons to do the right thing are opposed by reasons not to do the right thing. There are always perceived “rewards” to be gained if one breaks a rule of conscience. For example, a child may escape punishment from a parent for breaking a vase, but pays the internal price of guilt for telling a lie about it.


Importance of Conscience

There will always be situations when there are strong temptations to lie. What helps someone do the right thing in such situations? Concern about consequences generally pales in comparison to the importance of the inner voice of conscience, with its ability to reward with pride for obeying its requests, and punish with guilt for transgressions.

Guilt can be helpful when we feel it for the right reasons. Without it, we’d be lost in the press of our desires and impulses.


Being Truthful and Accepting Responsibility

We suggest a balanced approach when helping a child who has told a lie. On one hand, you should inform your child that you know he or she is not telling the truth. There should probably be some form of a consequence. For some sensitive children, simply conveying your disappointment is enough of a consequence. For others, temporarily removing a privilege, such as screen time, will help make the point.

You can also comment to your child that there must be some reason(s) he or she was unable to do what was right. Perhaps the lie was driven by a wish to cover up something else he or she is embarrassed about or ashamed of. Through discussion, you can find ways to dignify a child’s concerns, even if you don’t agree with them, and discuss other ways he or she could address or manage these concerns while still doing the right thing.


The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.


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