Lying, Part One

Dr. Wind:  My daughter has been lying to me lately about how she is doing in school, and about where she has been going with friends. How should I deal with her lying?


Answer:  When considering your daughter’s lying you do need to consider both your personal stand on truth and the fact that today’s society encourages some forms of falsehood.  Consider steroid use in athletes, prewritten term papers available on the internet, and the fact that many people seem to believe that the end point of success justifies any means of attaining it.  We live in quite different times from those when society admired George Washington for telling his father he was the one who cut down the cherry tree, even though he knew he was facing a stern punishment.  Look at your own attitude towards lying.  Do you always tell the truth about your age, your weight, or whether an outfit makes a friend or relative look fat?  Do you ever exaggerate details to make a story better?  It won’t work to hold your child to a higher standard of truth that you hold for yourself.  Children are excellent at detecting hypocrisy.

When you have proof that your child has lied, address them with a direct statement, e.g. “I know you lied to me about where you were last night because I spoke to Cindy’s mother.”  This begins an important dialogue.  Most parents are more likely to start out by asking questions that invite more lies, e.g. “Were you really at Cindy’s last night?” when they know for sure she was not.  This is entrapment that evokes anger and resentment not communication.

You describe your daughter as engaging in two of the five more common lies I hear in my practice.  These are: lying about doing badly in school, lying to avoid confrontation, lying about harm caused to others, lying to get something and lying about substance abuse.

How you deal with lying depends upon the age of the child who is telling the lie.

Before seven-years-old children are more likely to think magically as a normal part of their growing up.  This means they may believe what they imagine is real.  This magical thinking allows for some of the wonder of childhood and for beliefs our society encourages.  Without it we would not have Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or talking mice who live in a magic kingdom.  In children younger than seven your job is to teach them the difference between truth and falsehood, while still allowing for wonder. 

After about seven, most children can tell the difference between what they imagine and what actually exists.  Then consequences for lying should match the offense and the more natural the consequence the better.  In some instances your firm, verbalized disappointment or disapproval is enough. 

Beyond this, the way to help your child depends on the kind of lies they are telling.  Since your daughter is lying about her performance in school, it is important to disapprove of the lying but determine if there is an underlying problem.  Is she overscheduled?  Cut down on extracurricular activities.  Is she in over her head?  Get help from the school or a tutor.  Lies about school achievement should be dealt with by appropriate restrictions with a focus on the educational process and with necessary help to improve performance.

More advice to follow in next time's part-two blog!