A few years ago, when my daughter Allison was 3, I caught her with her hand in the cookie jar -- literally. She'd climbed up on the kitchen counter, opened a canister of Oreos and was busy feasting when I walked in. I was surprised to see her up there. But I was even more shocked when she denied that she'd eaten the cookies, despite the fact that her face was covered with crumbs. No matter how many times I asked Allison about the cookies, in a variety of ways, she stuck to her story.
This was not the first fib Allison had ever told me. We'd already been through a few other incidents, so I was getting worried. Had I neglected to teach my daughter how important honesty is? Could I be raising a liar?
Fortunately for me and other parents who find themselves fact-to-face with a little kid telling a tall tale, the answer is no. "At some point, almost all young children tell lies and take things that aren't theirs," explains Judith Wagner, director of the Broadoaks Children's School of Whittier College in California, where she also is a professor of child development and education. Even when it happens more than once, Wagner advises parents not to panic. "It's all part of normal development," she adds. "In fact, it would be unusual if your child never stretched the truth."
Why Kids Lie
Part of the reason very young children have a tough time with the truth is that the line between reality and fantasy is still a little blurry. They have yet to sort out the difference between their inner world of thoughts and feelings, and the concrete world where real things happen.
"Toddlers and preschoolers often believe that wishing something can make it so," says Debbie Webb Blackburn, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in children and families at Virginia Commonwealth University's Treatment Center for Children in Richmond, and the mother of three. "Last Saint Patrick's Day, my little boy told me that leprechauns had taken some things I knew he had actually lost. But it was more a case of magical thinking than active lying."
There are other reasons as well. Sometimes kids tell whoppers just because it's fun. "They may look at it as making up stories, not lying," says Wagner, who has done research on how children perceive themselves when they're not telling the truth. "If pressed, they'll admit it was a story and insist that the grown-up realized it, too."
By the time kids hit school age, there's another motivation as well. Some begin to exaggerate the facts to make themselves look better to others -- and to themselves. Your 6-year-old may brag, for example, that she can Rollerblade down the biggest hill in the park when you know she can barely make it down your driveway. But, again, this sort of fib should not be cause for alarm. It even can serve a very healthy purpose, according to William J. Doherty, a family therapist and author of "The Intentional Family" (Perseus Books). "It's as if the child is saying, `I know I can do it,' and may give her the confidence to try."
A lie also can be an honest mistake. "When my son was 6, I asked him how many hits he had gotten during a T-ball game. I was sure he was lying when he answered that he got eight," recalls Doherty. "It turned out that he thought that every time his bat even touched the ball, he'd gotten a hit."
But the main reason children prevaricate is to avoid punishment. It's a natural enough reaction -- telling a lie is an attempt to ward off the pain and shame that can accompany telling the truth. That's why it's important to make kids feel safe enough to come clean. "The first time you catch your child in a big lie, think carefully about whether you want to make it a federal case or turn it into a teachable moment," says Wagner. "If you humiliate her, that's all she'll remember -- and she may resolve to lie better next time so she won't get caught."
Still, you have to walk the line -- to make it safe but also to let kids know that lying is a serious issue for you. You are your children's guide and teacher as they develop their values. "A child's conscience is not fully developed until at least age 12, so you have to be her conscience," says Blackburn. That means consistently teaching the value of honesty, even if you know your child's motivation was harmless or sprang from confusion. You are the one who sets clear limits. "At first, the only thing kids understand about lying is that Mommy doesn't like it," says Blackburn. "Your goal is to jump-start your child's conscience so he gains self-control."
Wagner emphasizes that if you start early and keep at it, your child will eventually internalize the value of honesty and carry it with him into adulthood. Otherwise, she warns, "You may end up with a child who depends on others to set limits, and who can't stop himself from doing something wrong until he's caught."
Setting the Tone
So how do you teach your child the value of honesty? There are some simple rules to follow, according to the experts.
You can start by taking every opportunity to point out the impact of lies. Younger children don't understand abstract ideas very well, so be brief and very concrete.
When your preschooler rips a book, for example, and swears that his pal did it, point put that a lie may get him out of trouble, but get friends into it. Let him think about that for a while, and then see if you can coax the truth out of him. Always compliment him on his honesty, and tell him you're glad, above all, that he told you what really happened.
It's also important to make it clear that lying violates your trust in him. "A little guilt is good," says Blackburn. "Keep sending the message, and eventually he'll feel his own pangs of guilt."
Every once in a while, you also can undertake a quick exercise to reinforce and help children internalize the value of honesty. You can encourage kids as young as 6 to come up with several reasons that lying is wrong. "It helps you get beyond the `uh-huh' replies you hear when you lecture them," says Colchester, Vt., child psychologist Sharon Lamb, the co-editor of "The Emergence of Morality in Young Children" (University of Chicago Press) and the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 12.
Remember, too, that you must be a role model. No matter how much you tell children to value honesty, it won't make much difference unless you set a good example. "That means avoiding white lies," says Lamb. "If your child hears you telling someone that you can't come to a social event because you're sick when you're clearly not, she's not going to understand your sophisticated reasons for telling the lie."
Of course, it's most important to be truthful with your child. "I believe you'll be able to trust your child when he can trust you," observes Julia Willard, mother of Joshua, 10. "As a kid, I remember adults lying to me out of convenience, and thinking they were such hypocrites," says Willard of Westwood, Mass., who is an account supervisor at a media company. "So I tell the truth to Josh, even when it's hard. And most of the time, I get the truth back."
It's helpful to let your child work through the consequences of dishonesty and arrive at his own reasons for being honest. Walk him through his actions and the consequences, and let him decide what to do next.
Wagner recalls a time when she caught a child stealing at the elementary school she directs. Mary, a first-grader, stole some classroom art supplies by stuffing them down her leggings. At first Mary swore she hadn't taken the supplies. So Wagner simply told her that she could see her leggings bulging with them, and that it was wrong to take them because they didn't belong to her. She also pointed out to Mary that the other kids would be deprived of using them. "When I asked Mary to put the supplies back, she did -- now that she knew why taking them was wrong."
Of course, the experts and most parents agree that when dishonest behavior is repetitive, it needs to be dealt with decisively. The first time Jude Pernot's 9-year-old son, Taylor, stole something, he confessed immediately and she let him off with a stern lecture. Pernot, an administrative assistant at a New Jersey college, took the item, a book from the school book fair, back but told her son that the next time, he'd have to do it himself.
A month later, Taylor came home from a trip to a party-supply store with a bag full of extra things that hadn't been paid for. At that point, Pernot followed through, and the incident proved to be a powerful learning opportunity. "One of the most difficult things I've ever had to do as a parent was follow through on a threat and take Taylor back to the store. But I'm glad I did. He handed over the booty and told the manager that he was sorry and would never do it again. The manager thanked Taylor for being honest, and afterward my son and I were both relieved. He hasn't taken anything since."
What if you're child is not so forthcoming? A child who's been caught in a lie may feel so cornered that he'll stick to his story at all costs," says Blackburn. The best strategy: Don't force an on-the-spot confession. "Tell your child he has 30 minutes to think about it," Blackburn advises. "This gives him the opportunity to calm down, reflect and come clean on his own, which are skills you want to build."
While you want to give your child credit for confessing, don't fall into the "You won't get into trouble if you just tell me the truth" trap. "You can't teach honesty without also teaching accountability," says Doherty. "If your child breaks a toy on purpose and admits it, she still needs to make amends and pay for the toy. Otherwise, she won't learn to take responsibility for her actions."
Finally, forgive and (try to) forget. After your child has confessed, apologized and been disciplined, let the lie go. "Don't keep bringing up the incident or your child may feel you expect the worst of him, so why bother to change his behavior," says Blackburn. "You want to teach him that tomorrow is another day and another chance to act honestly."
When Deborah Schwartz, a Bethesda mother of three children, found out that her then sixth-grade son had cut school to go to the mall and lied about it, she grounded him for a week. "I was furious," said Schwartz, a publicist for a marketing communications firm. "But after Danny paid the price, I let it drop. I didn't want him to feel that he had lost my trust forever."
Forgiving your kids has another big advantage: It shows them the benefit of forgiving others. "Teaching your children to admit wrongdoings and showing them that they can be forgiven for them demonstrates the true power of honesty," says Maureen Callahan, a public relations coordinator who lives and works in Indianapolis and has two children. "It also makes them believe in themselves."