When Kids Lie, Withhold Information, or Deceive You

I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that from now on, I can’t believe you.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

When they’re younger, children’s lies sometimes are cute and entertaining, but as they get older, their lies can wreak a lot of havoc in your life and in theirs. Teaching children to be honest—even when it’s hard to tell the truth—is an important lesson to teach your child over and over. The more you model and emphasize living an honest life where your words match your actions, the more kids will see that honest truly is the best policy.

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Talk about lies and withholding information at a neutral times when no one has actually done it, so no one feels targeted. Explain when you’re tempted to lie and why. Discuss how you make decisions to be honest instead of deceitful.
    • Know that honesty (Asset 29) is one of the 40 Developmental Assets. Post the list of assets somewhere in your home and teach them to your kids. Download a free asset list (in English, Spanish, or French).
    • Choose your battles carefully. Not all lies are the same. All of us say “white lies” at times (the lies we tell not to hurt someone’s feelings, such as when a friend gets a horrible haircut and asks you if you like it). Be harder on the big lies than the smaller lies, but make it clear that honesty and tact are the best ways to go.
    • Admit when you’ve made a mistake. Adults are not perfect people. Kids admire adults when they own their mistakes and correct them.
    • Avoid treating your child as a suspect. Yes, your child may have lied, but don’t act like he murdered someone and interrogate him. Instead, calmly explain why you’re upset about the lie and why. Talk about how people have a hard time trusting someone who has lied and how important trust is in a relationship.
    • Try to create a family atmosphere that’s open and honest. This starts with you, as the parent, setting an example for your kids on being honest.
    • Get more ideas on how to teach honesty to kids by reading What Kids Need to Succeed.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Young children often get their imagination and reality mixed up, so they aren’t actually lying when they’re telling a story they’ve created. Teach your child about honesty but also allow him to explore and express his rich imagination.
    • Watch your (and other people’s) reactions when your child tells a “cute” lie, such as sneaking another cookie off of the dessert plate and saying, “I don’t see any cookie. Do you?” If you (or others) applaud this behavior and encourage it by laughing every time, your child is only going to learn how to do it better.
    • Read aloud books about honesty such as The Empty Pot by Demi and A Big Fat Enormous Lie by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Get to know the other adults in your child’s life (such as your child’s teacher, coach, grandparents, and club leaders). Talk about their ideas on getting children to act in positive ways, such as being honest. Tell them you would like to work together by teaching the same messages and giving similar consequences so that kids learn to be honest.
    • Notice when your child lies but don’t make a big deal out of it. Create a safe atmosphere for your child to admit lies and mistakes. For example, you can be hard on a lie without being overly hard on your child. Do this by focusing on the behavior and how to make it better rather than calling your child names or shaming your child.
    • Most children at this age lie to avoid punishment. Talk with your children about the fear of punishment and the temptation to lie while emphasizing that honesty is still the best choice.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Kids at this age sometimes lie when they want to do something that you forbid them to do. They tell you they’re going to a friend’s house when they’re actually going somewhere else. If you catch them, explain how you want them to make their own choices but they also need to be honest. Growing up means learning how to negotiate with people who disagree with you.
    • Connect with other parents to keep track of your kids. For example, another parent may be aware of something your child is doing that you didn’t know. Create a support system to help each other out.
    • As kids get older, their ability to lie, cover up, and withhold information becomes more sophisticated—particularly if no one has held them accountable in the past. Continue teaching them about the virtues of telling the truth, and continue to model honesty.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Older teenagers sometimes lie when they find themselves in situations that are over their head (such as getting a speeding ticket or having a drunk friend throw up on their jacket). Even though older teenagers can be adept at lying, you can often tell that something is up when they start acting a bit out of character. Ask questions. Invite your teen to talk to you when she’s ready. Tell her how much you care about her and that you want to help her.
    • Monitor situations so that you know when your teenager can handle it all on his own and when you need to intervene. For example, if your teenager skipped class and is in trouble with a teacher, see if he can resolve it without your help. If your teenager is getting suspended or expelled because he committed a serious offense, you need to intervene.
  • Discuss current events. Talk about why some newsmakers tell the truth when it is hard, while others tell half-truths or an outright lie. Ask your teen about how other people’s choices affect the choices you and she make.

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