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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Monday, September 24, 2007

When is a lie a lie?

Kids will lie, that's the truth. Teresa Fung emails with this question:

"My son lies occasionally, usually about things that I ask him to do but he didn't (e.g. did you wash your hands with soap?). Since I can't tell every lie he tells, I am conveying to him that sometimes he can get away with it. How do I promote honesty? He does the same thing with my husband, too. Sometimes he'll say "I don't know" or "I forgot if I did". He knew, just
didn't want to tell us."

Sometimes kids just can't be bothered applying the brain power to remember if they did or didn't do something, so saying "I forgot" isn't necessarily a lie. Lazy, maybe. Here are some other thoughts on the subject.

A column on why children lie, which I wrote a number of years ago, began with a story that's become one of my favorites:

"One day last week, 2 1/2-year-old Diana Peters was meandering down the hall of the psychology building at the University of North Dakota, where her father, Douglas, is a professor. She paused at that big, red thing on the wall, just within her reach. At the very moment that her father came out of his office to see where she was, Diana reached up and pulled down.

"The fire alarm sounded, people poured out of doorways, and Diana's stricken father gasped, "Diana, what have you done?"

"Nothing, Daddy! I didn't do it! Brian did it!"

"Brian, her 4-year-old brother, wasn't even with them, but a frightened Diana stuck to her story as police and six Grand Forks fire trucks arrived.

For Peters, the moment was a curious blending of personal and professional lives. For the past eight years, he has been researching children's lies; here was his daughter publicly providing him with a whopper.

"Peters reacted as a father. "What could I do -- argue with her? Force her into saying she'd done it? She's 2 1/2 years old!"

"Hours later, though, Diana voluntarily owned up. "Daddy, I pulled the switch." Peters remained casual, saying only, "I thought so. It's good you told Daddy that you remembered you pulled the switch."

For years, researchers did not think children as young as Diana had the cognitive ability to lie on purpose, that they were too egocentric and cognitively unable to purposefully deceive. Now research disputes that saying that there are a number of reasons -- mostly ego-centric -- why they might lie. In the story above, for instance, Pteres speculated that his daughter was frightened by the noise, that it was a reflex to say, "Not me!"

Here are some excerpts from the column:

"...There are two reasons why preschoolers lie: to get a material reward or to avoid punishment. Peters' research prompts him to add a third motive for young children: "A commitment that is strong enough to lie for." He says a 3-year-old who makes a promise may believe that the ethics of keeping it is more important than telling the truth, a finding that has significant implications for children testifying in court cases.

"School-age children lie for these reasons as well as some others....: to impress a peer or to challenge your authority, to get out of an awkward social situation, and, by 9 or 10, to get privacy from an overly intrusive parent.

"Children of all ages lie simply to see if they can get away with it. 'Did you wet the bed last night?' 'No, the dog did.' 'Did you have a cookie?' 'No, the baby did.' "

"Between 6 and 10, children also engage in ...'tricking': ''It's a kind of game they play. They're trying to get you: 'The cafeteria had elephant burgers today!' 'Come on, elephant burgers?' 'Ha, ha! I tricked you!' "

At some point, though, they stop announcing, "I tricked you."

...Ultimately, the message you want your child to learn is that lying erodes trust. So you start by telling your preschooler that lying is not nice, even when it's not much of a lie.

"Don't overreact -- that can be frightening," says Peters. "Just work into conversation how much you value honesty and truthfulness. Let your child know that even if he feels badly about something he did, it's OK to tell you the truth."

"By 5, children are able to [understand] that lying is unfair, that it's cheating. They also can understand the consequences of a lie. For instance, Peters says if Diana had been older, he would have explained that she should tell the truth because the firefighters needed to know why the alarm was pulled, whether it was a real fire or an accident.

"About age 8, you can begin to get to the heart of the matter by introducing the idea of the boy who cried wolf: He lied so often, no one trusted him when he did tell the truth."

Here are some suggestions if you suspect your school-age child is lying:

Don't try to trap him; just try to stop him from lying. "I'm not sure if you are telling the truth or not. Before you say anything else, I want you to think some more about this."

Don't tempt him to lie. If you suspect he's broken a rule, don't ask, ''What did you do this afternoon?" That makes him think, "He doesn't know. I can get away with this." Instead, present him with the evidence you have found -- "The CD player was left on." If he still lies, [here's what you can say]: "I don't think you are telling the truth. I'm not happy if you broke my rule, but I'm even less happy if you lie about it."

Reflect aloud for a motive. "Something must have made you use the CD. Were you trying to impress a friend?" [That's reassuring} It gets decoded as, 'Even if I do something really stupid, my parents are understanding. I can tell them."

Punishing a child for lying is tricky because it makes some children resolve only to learn to lie better. Instead, create an environment that supports telling the truth and offers rewards for that rather than punishment for lies. Some children are punished enough by your strong disappointment.

Your model is the biggest reason children do or don't lie.

A preschooler's face gives his lie away. In school-age children, look for these telltale signs: he avoids eye contact, puts his head down, turns his back on you, or engages in a nervous gesture such as rubbing his arms or hands.

A child who starts off lying and then tells the truth shows courage that should be rewarded, even if he was trying to cover up for something he shouldn't have done. If it's a first-time transgression, tell him: "I'm so proud of you for telling the truth, I'm not going to punish you this time." If it happens again, be clear that you still admire the truth but can't overlook the transgression. Don't make the punishment so severe, however, that he will feel telling the truth is a wasted effort.

If your child lies constantly, seek professional help.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 04:08 PM
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