When Children Lie

When Chani was tiny, she lied. I called her on it and my sweet mother-in-law (8 children, LDS ward primary president for decades) gently suggested that I be very careful about how I label lying. That started some pretty intense research and pondering on the subject for me. Here is what I found.

1. Be honest yourself. When those tough questions about sex are asked, answer them correctly. When you say you are going to do something, be sure you can do it. When something unexpected happens, and you can’t do what you were going to do, be honest about why. This teaches that there is a difference between making plans and changing them and lying.

2. Do not ask stupid questions. If you have one child, and the television has been smashed because a toy was thrown through it, don’t ask, “Did you do this?” If you know the answer, do not force the child into a Lying Corner by demanding that the child to fess up. It is a battle you can’t win – so don’t start. Just act appropriately to the problem without adding the secondary problem of lying.

3. Don’t ask Why – Ask How. Why is a very emotional question and often triggers the brain to seek a reason. Seriously, with children, there often isn’t a reason. If you ask why did he throw the toy, you will probably kick his brain into a value search and however he answers, it will probably not sound very honest. Instead, ask “How did this happen?” Better yet, put that puzzled sound into your voice, cock your head like you are going to listen for the answer and see what happens. He could make up an elaborate story, or he could actually tell you the truth. Either way, you will get a better response than asking Why. When Ryan was four years old, I came into the living room and found that my beautiful boy had a bald streak along the top of his head. Because he had both older and younger siblings, I knew it could have been any of them – or Ryan – who had found the scissors. “Ryan, what happened?” “Well, you see, this bullet came right through the window, just like this…” And he took his index finger and shot it along the bald line. Of course, that wasn’t very truthful, but it has made for a lifelong delightful story. Now would be the time to ask, “Oh. But what really happened?” (Sometimes, really just isn’t as much fun as pretend.) You are looking for a thought process or step-by-step action process to make a determination – does the action warrant discipline, teaching, or laughter? Once that it is clear(ish), and if knowing why it happened is important – then ask. By now, you’d be into conversation mode so the emotion factor will have diminished. Keep in mind, once you shift to the Why, the child’s response could shift as well to the Blame Game of “It was my brother’s fault!” It can feel strange to ask How questions when we are so programmed to ask Why. Sometimes, you can ask What questions, but be careful because parents can make What questions sound very anger-filled and that would certainly stop any real communication.

4. Talk about honesty and lying when you are not in the middle of a problem. Very young children have trouble with real vs pretend. They get it – sort of – but not really. It is a process of growing up and development. This is why my mother-in-law wanted me to be very careful about labeling my preschooler’s stories as lying. At around 8 years old, a child becomes concerned with honesty and rules – other people’s honesty and other people following the rules. It is the time to explore the different shades of communication – is it lying to tell a friend that her new hair cut is horrid? Is it lying to plan a surprise and tell a person something false to bring it about? Is it lying to say you are sorry when you don’t feel you did anything wrong? These types of conversations should happen on a normal, frequent, life-living basis and will go on for many years – maybe even for a lifetime.

5. Accept that lying will happen. When it does, and needs to be addressed, make sure the discipline is one that you and your entire family can be happy with. Do not ground the person from family activities, church functions, or isolate them to their room. This is like shooting yourself in the foot, or tossing the baby out with the bathwater! You WANT an errant child to be around family and church. Find something that you are willing to oversee without messing up everybody else in the family. When I was twelve, I lied to my mother. My father was so unhappy with me, because honesty was one of his most valued virtues, that he didn’t talk to me for a week. He didn’t even look at me. It broke my heart. It also, at age twelve, let me know how incredibly important honesty is in a person’s character. This would be devastating to a younger child, but at age twelve – I was more than ready to know better. His very low-key response was enough to change me. When the week was over, he acted as if nothing awful had ever happened. A very powerful lesson.

6. Understand and teach why telling a lie is an enormous sin. In Doctrine and Covenants 76:103, it lists “liars” first before any other character who has rejected Christ. I believe it is because lies often accompany the other, more serious sins. It is important to know why God would think so poorly of those who lie. Talk about the safety found in honesty. Don’t keep secrets. Don’t keep dangerous confidences. Lying includes attempts to make the sin belong to somebody else (an abuser makes the victim feel it is her fault.) Dangerous confidences are a big deal among teens. Talking about why that is deadly, and what to do about it when somebody confides in your child, should start early in their childhood – and certainly by age 10. When your teen is told by a friend that she wants to kill herself but “don’t tell anybody” – your teen should know, without doubt, that the confidence is not one to keep – no matter the consequence to friendship! Your children need to know what types of confidences are right share with somebody who has the power or judgement to know how to handle the problem – this ties back to #4.

7. Trust your instincts. Some study done many, many years ago, found that parents of a big family almost instinctively know which child did what. They were wrong only about 10% of the time. So, when you can’t figure out something (see #2), trust that you are probably right in what you think happened and who did it. Do not hold off on addressing the issue because of insecurity over who did it and the fear of misjudging an innocent. Also, use group discipline when appropriate because sometimes it is (see #5). I’m sure if you do group discipline, one or two of the children will come with tears in their eyes and say, “It wasn’t me, I was reading…” and you’ll know – because you know your children – that it is probably the truth and so you simply adjust the group discipline accordingly. Isn’t parenting grande?

8. Teach them to tell Mom and Dad. Actually, that happens easily and we hate it. We really do. We call it tattling and it drives us crazy. But I always thought, “What if I instill in them to “not tell me” by my frustration over tattling, and then they become teens and they don’t tell me when a brother is driving them around town while texting?” Okay, back then, I didn’t wonder that exactly – but you can see my process. So, when the brother did – they told and you can bet I took appropriate action. That had been my real goal all those years of not wanting tattling but controlling my reaction – so they would be comfortable telling me things as a teen when they wonder so often if something should be told or not. It worked.

#9. Facing Truth. I want to add this, even though it doesn’t totally fit in with actually parenting this issue. When a person sins, lies are usually involved. They don’t have to be outright lies. It can be a lie of not recognizing that anything wrong happened. It can very easily be the Blame Anybody or Everybody Else type of lie. Before repentance happens, we have to acknowledge that a sin happened. If we are dishonestly blaming, we are not recognizing. If we don’t recognize, which is the first step of repentance, then we can’t go on to the next step. So, the adversary wants us to immerse ourselves in lies, especially any lie that doesn’t recognize that we are wrong.

By doing the things I mentioned, teaching the gospel, and explaining why keeping this commandment matters, we can give a super strong foundation for our children to grow up valuing honesty deep in their psyche.

Did my nine children lie? Absolutely. And a couple of them stole their siblings money and gave it back. Now that the youngest is 17 years old, they are all remarkably honest individuals and it is their turn to struggle with raising children. And they all know, without doubt, that if they ask their parents a question, they will get an honest answer.