Why do children lie?

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Five year old Surbhi was a great story teller. Her parents, Nitya and Devesh were proud of their daughter’s story telling skill. They would often tell their friends and family about her talent, sometimes adding little bits and pieces here and there. A bit of harmless bragging won’t harm, will it; they thought, rather it carves out a much better picture of their daughter and her talent.

As children genetically are Surbhi picked up the hints left by her parents and mastered the art. It wasn’t long enough when apart from mastering the art of story-telling, Surbhi inadvertently picked up the habit of lying. For her it was just another form of story-telling. At her age she was ignorant of the consequences that her benign story might bring; a story that was just a figment of her innocuous brain.

Surbhi would imagine she was having pony princess parties, dress them up and would weave stories around them. She was excellent in making up stories around simple things. During her primary schooling, she would often come home with little Lego figurines from her school. When Nitya asked her why she was bringing home school toys, then she would say that the teachers have asked her to take them home. She would cite tall tales on how good and well behaved she was at school and how impressed her class teacher was with her that she gave the little Legos to her and told her that she was being rewarded for her good behaviour. The unsuspecting Nitya would hardly read between the lines and would in turn be proud of her little princess. However, after some days Surbhi refused to go to school anymore because it seems the ever appreciating teachers had suddenly turned villains. According to her they would scold her for no reason and also would tell her that she was a badly behaved girl. Yet everyday Nitya would find the Lego figurines in Surbhi’s pockets only to be told that now her friends have started giving her the toys.

It was only on one of the PTM’s that Nitya discovered her daughter’s habit of lying. That day Nitya and Devesh sat down to have a long chat with their daughter.

Young children like Surbhi spinning stories around unsuspecting and simple things don’t come as a surprise for us. In fact manipulating the truth for personal gains is viewed as a ‘developmental milestone, much like learning to get dressed by yourself or to take turns.’ Some studies have shown that bright kids who are able to pick up the nugatory and trivial data from their everyday life and spin phenomenal stories around them pick up the skill from a very early age, as early as 2-3 years. For older kids of age 4 and 5, the game is on big time and slowly they start mastering the art. Fortunately, just because your young child is a frequent fabler doesn’t mean that she’ll grow up to be a big, fat liar. However, as parents it is our job to identify the problem early and nip this bad habit before it becomes ingrained. Freaking out and screaming at your kid or punishing her won’t discourage her; in fact she may simply become a better liar to avoid getting caught the next time.

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Before the spin begins:

  1. Being Pro-active. As parents we should always play on our front foot; be pro-active rather than reactive. So we shouldn’t wait to catch our child lying for the first time to teach her the importance of truth and its consequences. He/she is in a much better position to listen to the parents if he/she isn’t on the defensive.
  2. Reading books. Books can help introduce the subject in a way that doesn’t seem accusatory. Books like Princess K.I.M. and the Lie That Grew, by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, or Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf are some books that are good in introducing the concept. Stories like Pinocchio and his Growing Nose are also best examples to introduce the little ones to the consequences of lying. Citing personal examples on how you lied when you were a child and what consequences followed will make the learning more at home.
  3. Setting examples. Children love to imitate their parents so citing personal examples and setting examples for them to follow through your daily behaviour on how you deal with situations and come out of it can give them a moral boost and encourage them not to lie.
  4. Talking to them about special cases. When children reach certain age say about 7 or 8 years, they begin to understand the nuances of being ‘prosocial’ or telling white lies. These are lies which are said in order to protect someone from getting hurt, (like you tell you love the present given by your mom or someone close to you even though you do not like it). In such cases as parents it is our duty to explain to our children that although we are telling a lie to save someone from getting hurt yet these are exceptions to honesty that cannot be resorted to on a regular basis to bail them out from difficult situations. A clear demarcation of boundaries is as important as conceptualization.
  5. Spending quality time with your children. Sometimes children lie to get your attention or when they feel that they are being neglected. They lie to cover up their insecurities; whether inside the house or outside; insecurities about school or about friends and peers. Talking to them about their fears and helping them over come them can only be done by talking to them and spending quality time.
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When There’s a Whopper in the Works:

You walk into your house after a bad day at work and find an elaborate drawing, made in permanent marker, on your bedroom wall. Uh-oh! The culprit knows she has invited trouble big time. Can’t you just see her little brain toiling extra time to come up with a way to wriggle out of situation? Even if you sense a con job coming, it’s not too late to help her come clean.

  1. Stay Calm. Although you are already in a battle within yourself but staying calm and not losing your temper is the only key to pull back your child from falling prey to the temptation. Children often take the easy way out when they fear your response.
  2. Don’t manipulate the little mind. The ice-cream that you bought yesterday is no-where to be found. When you walk into her room you see her playing with her toys, the ends of her lips still bearing the remnants of the ice-cream that she had tried hard to wipe clean with her tongue. Asking her whether she has done it or not is pointless for although you see it she doesn’t and she will try her best not to own up to it. So the best you can do instead of accusing her directly is tell her that ‘it is okay to catch a sweet snack in between meals but it is always the right thing to first ask Mommy about it.’
  3. Appreciate her honesty. Children love to be appreciated for the little good gestures and behaviour they do. The appreciation gives a positive vibe to them encouraging them to carry on the good work. So next time your child is honest make sure you do not miss the opportunity of appreciating her honesty. Little things can go great lengths.
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