Five Gentle Tools for Handling Lying
[Reprinted from Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available through Amazon and other major retailers.]
The line between fantasy and reality is very blurry for small children. They still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. They are convinced that they can talk to animals and can fly if they wear a cape and are faster runners if they wear their ‘fast shoes.’ They think the moon follows them home and that if they stretch as tall as they can, they can touch the stars. It’s one of the most beautiful and celebrated facets of the innocence of childhood, but also one of the most misunderstood.
When a little boy puts a bowl on his head and makes up a fantastic story about rocketing to the moon in a cardboard spaceship, adults smile nostalgically and applaud his imagination. When that same little boy finds himself stuck in the uncomfortable position of being caught sneaking cookies from the pantry and makes up a story about the cookies accidentally falling off of the shelf into his mouth, those same adults often shame the child.
When a little girl perches on the arm of the sofa and tells a tall tale about pirates and stormy seas and walking the plank, her parents will laugh and join in the fun, but then she will often be punished if she spins a tale to cover her tracks after she stuffs a towel down the toilet to see if it will flush and finds out that stuffed up toilets overflow instead.
Communication is a complex skill, full of hidden nuances and subtle connotations and social mores that are far, far beyond the capacity of young children to understand. And yet they are often held to an impossible standard of perfection by the adults in their life. Interestingly, those adults holding them to such a high standard rarely hold themselves to the same standard, though. What adult, when faced with a traffic fine for speeding, hasn’t protested that they didn’t know they were going over the speed limit? How often do adults say “I love your new haircut” or “You haven’t aged a day” when the opposite is true? How many adults call out of work sick when they aren’t actually sick or return something to the store after using it and say it’s unused or tell their spouse to say they aren’t home when a phone call comes in they don’t want to answer?
How, then, when adults are the ones modeling how communication should be used, can they expect children to somehow know instinctively when it is and isn’t acceptable to lie? How can parents expect children to have the fortitude and maturity to simply accept the discomfort of telling the truth when they, themselves, so easily and often lie to avoid their own discomfort?
And yet parents are often horrified and embarrassed when their child lies. So much so, in fact, that they react to their own emotions instead of responding appropriately to the child and the situation, and they end up shaming and/or punishing their child.
Think about it realistically for a moment, though. If children lie because they’ve seen the adults in their life lie, is shaming or punishing them fair? If they lie because they are uncomfortable and fearful, will making them more uncomfortable and fearful solve the problem? If they lie because it’s normal for their developmental stage, does it seem reasonable to hold them accountable for it?
Having a few tools ready and available in your parenting ‘toolbox’ helps to avoid these ineffective and rather hypocritical adult reactions to children lying:
First, be aware that the safer your children feel with you, the less likely they will be to lie. Removing the motivation of fear and discomfort will go a long way toward making your children trust you with the truth, no matter what it is.
Second, even when children feel safe they may lie simply because small children often say how they wish things were and really believe they can make it happen just by saying it! Bearing this in mind can help you to see that innocent imagination at work that you enjoy so much in other settings and help you to exercise more patience and understanding.
Third, when confronted with a lie, the best response is to calmly state the truth yourself, assure the child that they can always tell you the truth, and then move on without punishing the lie or giving the lie any more power or attention.
Fourth, all behavior, including lying, is communication. Focusing on the need behind the behavior instead of the behavior itself (or the lie it prompted) will actually solve the problem rather than simply address the symptom of the problem.
Fifth, keeping in mind that, over time, your children will mature enough to verbalize their needs instead of acting them out if their needs are met consistently and with understanding and respect while they are younger will help you to stay calm and focused. The end result will be healthy communication and trust with no need to lie.
Imagination truly is the language of childhood. It only makes sense to try to understand their language instead of insisting they perfect ours. We are, after all, the only adults in the relationship!
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.