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Paul Ekman is an award-winning psychologist, author and public speaker who specializes in studying emotions, expressions and deceit. Read more »
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All kids sometimes lie to their parents. The most common reason is to avoid punishment for a deliberate or accidental misdeed. Another common motive is to obtain some reward or benefit not otherwise obtainable. There are also lies to protect a friend or sibling, lies to enhance self-esteem (bragging), lies to get out of an awkward social situation, lies to obtain privacy from an intrusive parent, and lies to test and exert power over their own lives. The list goes on.
Parents are often hurt when they discover a serious lie, and that hurt may motivate the parent to punish more severely than is justified or useful, and unwittingly motivate the child to become a more careful liar rather than discourage future lying behavior. To be truthful when you know that doing so will get you punished asks for more bravery than most of us, let alone our children, have. When parents suspect their children are lying, they are sometimes tempted to try to catch them in the lie rather than act in a way that will encourage the child not to be afraid to be truthful. In other words, the parent should be an educator, not a policeman.
Children learn about lying by observing their parents lie—to telemarketers and salespeople, to each other, to friends, etc. To raise a truthful child, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Be careful not to engage in the lies most of us tell as adults without thinking about it—the lies of social convenience. If you do lie in front of your child, explain why you did so and why it probably would have been better to be truthful.
If you suspect they are about to lie, don't try to trap your child; try to discourage lying by not acting impatient, suspicious or angry. If you are feeling hurt or angry, then wait before talking to your child; don't act on those feelings. Let your child know you understand that we all make mistakes and you would like to know about any mistakes they have made.
With young children, explain how hard it is to get along with people who lie: how hard it will be for you, and how hard it will be for the child's friends. Use an example such as a game like chutes and ladders and explain how you can't play the game if one person is lying.
When a child gets older, introduce the concepts of trust and reputation. Loss of trust, which occurs when someone discovers they have been misled, is very destructive, preventing closeness in further encounters. And unless you can trust someone to mean what they say and not lie, it is very hard to work with or live with them. Explain how hard it may be to reestablish trust once it is lost. Explain the penalty of having a reputation of being untrustworthy. Use examples. Try to use something from when you were a child—when you lied or were tempted to lie—explaining the consequences.
If you do use punishment, consider that the punishment for lying should be made clear in advance of seeking a confession, and the punishment should always be relevant to whatever initiated it. But don't be too harsh; consider warnings for first offenses. Remember: fear of punishment is the most common reason children and adults lie.
If your child has become a chronic liar by the age of 10 to 12—noticed not only by you at home but at school—get help. Seek the advice or intervention of a minister or rabbi, or a professional counselor. Most children grow out of lying, but if it becomes chronic, it should not be ignored.
Sorry, Paul Ekman, Ph.D. is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.