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Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Putting Out the Flames Without Punishing

In my childhood, my mama was a consummate corrector of spoken grammar. She strictly patrolled subject-verb agreement, sentences ending in prepositions, pronoun reference, correct usage of I and me and lay and lie. Eventually, I learned to rehearse every phrase before it came out of my mouth, which gave me plenty of time to decide if I really ought to say it at all.

The other rules of conversation set by my dear mother were that my siblings and I could never claim to hate anything or anyone. It’s simply too strong of a word, she admonished us. And we could never, ever, under any circumstances, identify someone as a liar or something the person said as a lie. We could speak of ‘untruths,’ but never lies. She considered such talk foul language.

My mama’s opinion stabs right to the heart of how we feel about lying here in the Bible belt. It’s a despicable behavior of which we shirk from accusing even our worst enemy. So, naturally, when we catch our own child engaging in this untoward activity, telling an untruth, it shocks us, it disappoints us and it calls us to action.

Lying as a Developmental Activity

Take heart, moms and dads. Lying isn’t always such a horrible behavior. In fact, says Quentin Hartmann, Ph.D., assistant professor and undergraduate research coordinator for Augusta State University’s Department of Psychology, it’s a developmental milestone parents should welcome as a harbinger of good news.

“It’s a normal part of development and it’s an important part of our development,” she says reassuringly. The skill of telling a lie demonstrates that a child has the ability to plan and to think about what another person knows or doesn’t know. In addition, to lie, a child must understand that other people have the capacity to believe something that isn’t true. When a child lies, particularly a young child, it is evidence that he or she recognizes that other individuals have thoughts and ideas that are independent of their own. These complicated cognitive activities indicate at age 3 or 4 that developmentally everything is humming along as it should.

Telling fanciful stories may begin shortly after 24 months of age. These are generally expressions of the imagination and are not told to manipulate a person or a situation. For example, a toddler might tell Mom that a dragon took a nap with her. The difference between this type of storytelling and a lie is that a lie is triggered by a need for self-preservation. A lie is rooted in the intention to deceive.

Preschool children define the world in terms of good and bad. They very much want Mom and Dad and other authority figures to think of them as good. Maintaining this image is a motivation to lie. Fortunately, while preschoolers possess the cognitive skills necessary to tell a lie, their fibs are rather farfetched and easy to detect.

As children get older, they become more savvy at understanding the difference between what is possible and what isn’t. “At age 5, 6 and 7, kids make up plausible logical lies,” says Hartmann, who notes that their ability to plan improves. Children this age begin telling lies to avoid potential punishment.

By the time kids enter the tween years, they’ve honed their talent for pulling the wool over the eyes of parents, teachers and peers. They aren’t perfect at it, but they are relatively good at predicting what false information another person is likely to accept as true. Hartmann says, “Tweens lie to appear more sophisticated than they are.” She contrasts this with teenagers, whom she explains lie primarily in order to exert their autonomy. “It’s going to peak in adolescence when they’re searching for their identity and independence,” she adds.

In the developmental stage of emerging adulthood, between the ages of 18-25, most people have achieved a sense of independence and appreciation for social norms and thus, there is a significant decrease in lying behavior.

Parenting Strategies

Nancy Buck, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist, expert in children’s motivation and behavior, parenting coach and author who shares her wisdom at, says, “All human behavior is purposeful,” including the behavior of deception. She goes on to say, however, “Just because all behavior is purposeful, that does not mean that all behavior is responsible or respectful.”

Yes, lying is a distinct developmental achievement with a pattern of evolving complexity across childhood and adolescence, but, no, this does not mean that parents should ignore it.

The two most effective things parents can do to address lying is to 1) help their child get what she wants by a more acceptable method and 2) assess their parenting style. Realize that children are trying to get something or avoid something or both when they lie.

“Parents who teach their children how to get what they need and want responsibly, respecting a child’s need for freedom and teaching this child how to handle increased freedom responsibly and respectfully, will have children who do not lie. They have no reason to,” says Buck. Passionate parents who put their focus on insisting that their child never tell a lie miss the opportunity to help the child develop desirable social skills. When a child tells a tale, acknowledge that she has a desire and ask what it is that she really is trying to get. Teach her how to get it without lying. Nonetheless, don’t expect instant results. This is a continuous process across childhood.

Parents also need to consider what they might be doing to increase the behavior of lying. Buck advises, “Parents who work to externally control their children are more likely to have children who lie.” When controlling parents catch their children in a lie, they flip out, because they are forced to acknowledge how little control they really wield. Frustration mounts with the realization that they cannot make their child tell the truth.

Psychologists like Hartmann term over-controlling parents ‘authoritarian’ and encourage parents to move their style toward ‘authoritative’ parenting, which extends to kids, no matter their age, more autonomy.

Authoritarian parents set very high demands, establish strict rules and enforce control with punishment. They tend to be restrictive and unwilling to engage in thoughtful debate about the rules. Authoritative parents, on the other hand, also establish rules and guidelines, but are more responsive to their children’s questioning of those rules. Consequences for breaking rules are consistent, appropriate and enforced with love. Hartmann says, “Increase kids’ sense of autonomy. Let them in on choosing the punishment. Let them have a role in making rules. Have them in on the discussion with the adult having the final say.” Guiding children at each stage in respectful and responsible ways to get what they want, while also granting them age-appropriate independence, will diminish the offensive behavior of lying.

Normal Lying and Not-so-Normal Lying

Not all lies are bad. A female in a threatening situation may use deception to overcome the physical disparity between herself and the aggressor. A falsehood may be told to save another person from hurt feelings or from undue worry. Sometimes, stretching the truth is a way of winning or shutting down a game of one-upping.

Parents should worry when lying fails to drop off with the rise of independence attained at the end of the teen years. It could be an indication of a range of issues associated with the child’s psychological and/or physical state. Hartmann advises, “Seeking a professional counselor is a good idea.”

To put it succinctly, Hartmann says, “It’s so natural. Everybody does it.” Looking back on my childhood and my mother’s staunch objection to the word ‘liar,’ I believe her intent was not to stifle our emotional response to being duped. Her tutelage arose from wisdom that lying is a complex behavior that on some occasions serves a valuable purpose and on others chisels away at trust. The social compact we have with one another and that we want to pass to our children depends on grasping those nuances.

Do This, Not That

Carleton Kendrick, Boston-based family therapist and author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s, offers quick insight for parents.

If your child lies, DON’T:

• Label your child a liar.
• Immediately blame yourself.
• Mistake imaginary play, such as cultivating an imaginary friend, for lying behavior.
• Fret that your teenager will become a dishonest untrustworthy adult.
• Discount lying exhibited by a young child as just a stage.
• Immediately accuse your child of lying. Take a break, give the child time to think over his words and revisit after some time has passed.

If your child lies, DO:

• Try to determine what unspoken anxieties, fears and problems are at the heart of the lies of tweens and teens.
• Allow young children to engage in imaginary play.
• Manage your own lies of commission, omission and situational ethics. Children model parents’ behavior.
• Guide preschoolers in distinguishing between what is real and what is make-believe. Keep it fun and positive.
• Understand that lying is a common behavior among children and adults.
• Focus on the child’s goodness and your love for him.

Lucy Adams is the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children.

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