This post is about a behavior that comes up frequently in the office of a child psychologist: lying. There are many descriptors for this behavior. My all-time favorite came from a very likable and comedic little boy who was the youngest of four boys in a lively family I worked with in therapy:
I wasn’t lying exactly; I was smudging the truth. Earnest, age 9
This little truth-smudger was a mischievous sort. He frequently got into trouble for misdeeds that were neither intentional nor mean-spirited. For example, on one of many occasions when his curiosity muscled out his good sense, Earnest disassembled his father’s beard trimmer. Another time, he used his mother’s makeup to create war paint. Once, he decided the writing assignment his teacher gave the class wasn’t interesting enough, so he sent an email with a different assignment to all of his classmates. I often thought of Bill Watterson’s Calvin when I heard about Earnest’s antics.
There are three broad categories of childhood lying. The first, which I so rudely call Cover Your Ass (CYA), is a type of lying that most kids will experiment with from time to time; some kids will do it a lot. Lies in this category follow getting caught, and they are typically impulsive. When Mom asked Earnest why his room smelled like recently struck matches, he immediately responded, “I have no idea what you’re talking about; I don’t smell anything.” That is an example of a CYA lie. Eventually, Earnest came clean and admitted he was trying to find out if water burns; the good news is that it does not! CYA lying needs to be addressed, but it should not cause a great deal of alarm for parents, especially when the offending child is prepubescent.
The second category is somewhat more concerning and involves using lies to manipulate others and/or to achieve desired outcomes. It tends to be planned and will sometimes involve safeguards against getting caught. Near the end of the last school year, a teenaged client of mine told her parents an elaborate lie about why she was exempt from the calculus final. She did this so her parents would not make her miss two graduation parties to study for the final. She asked a friend, who actually was allowed to skip the final because he had an A in the class, to mention in front of her mother that he was exempt from the exam in order to make her story more believable. This lie did not come to light until several weeks later when her parents received her report card. This type of lie requires intervention and can present some real challenges for parents, especially those who don’t possess excellent lie-detecting skills.
The third category of lying, which is far less common than the others, involves creating and telling fantastical and/or completely groundless stories. The child may or may not be fully aware that the stories are false. What makes this category different and more concerning is that the stories serve no apparent function. The child is not trying to stay out of trouble or to get what he wants. These stories may represent a real deficit in social awareness or they may indicate that the child is having trouble differentiating fantasy from reality.
This post focuses on the CYA type of lie.
Because of his propensity to behave in mischievous ways, Earnest often found himself on the defensive with his parents. Imagine how frequently this little boy heard “Earnest, did you mess with my makeup?” or “Have you been playing with matches?” or “Are you responsible for this disaster?” As such, Earnest frequently told CYA lies. When caught in a misdeed, he almost instantly reverted to some version of “It wasn’t me,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “I used it but I didn’t mess it up.” With three older brothers in the house who could possibly be the culprit, the CYA lies often gave Earnest a brief reprieve while his parents completed their investigation. In the end, though, his parents would figure out that their youngest was the responsible party. At this point, they would be doubly angry – for the original misdeed and for the lie(s) that followed.
The good news is that there are tried-and-true strategies for dealing with children who tell CYA lies. They work best for parents who are clairvoyant and possess supernatural self-control, but they also work for regular parents like you and me.
The first step for parents is to hone their lie-detecting, or at least their lie-suspecting, skills. I am often surprised when parents, who have come to therapy with a child who lies frequently, continue to be inclined to believe whatever the child tells them. This comes from a good place, of course; parents want to trust their children. Unfortunately, blindly trusting a child whose behavior has not been trustworthy does more harm than good. It does not teach an essential lesson that children need to learn: if you tell lies, then people will not trust you. It’s that simple. This step translates into erring on the side of mistrusting when you are not sure whether or not you are hearing the truth.
If you have any doubt about the truthfulness of your child’s claim, the next step is to give her a second chance to tell the truth. Because CYA lies tend to happen too quickly for there to be any thought behind them, also give your child some time to think before you listen to her story again.
Imagine this scenario which played out in a session with Earnest’s family.
Mom: I haven’t even brought this up with Earnest because I’ve been too upset about it, but I think he may have broken a porcelain vase from China that a dear friend gave me as a wedding gift.
[Earnest starts to deny it, but I interrupt him.]
Me: Mom, go ahead and ask Earnest directly.
Mom: Earnest, I went to get the vase out of its box and it was broken. Did you break it?
Earnest: No, Mom, I swear. Why do you always blame me for everything?
Me: Mom, if you don’t believe him, why don’t you give him some time to think about it and then ask him again? Perhaps we can have Earnest sit in the waiting room while he thinks things over.
Mom: I feel bad. Never mind. It’s only a vase.
Me: Earnest, I’d like you to go to the waiting room. In five minutes, I’m going to come and get you so your mom can ask you again about the vase. Remember, Mom will be doubly angry if you don’t tell the truth.
[While Earnest is in the waiting room, I ask Mom why she feels bad. She tells me that she worries she might be falsely accusing her son. I ask her to think about what lesson Earnest will learn if, in fact, he did not break her vase. She reluctantly acknowledges that it is because he lies so frequently that she cannot trust him. She believes he will learn that being mistrusted is a result of his frequent lies. I invite Earnest back into the office.]
Earnest (on his way into the office): I did it, Mom. I didn’t mean to. That thing is really fragile. And it happened so long ago that at first I didn’t remember.
Mom: I’m really glad you told me the truth.
Me: So, what happens now? After all, Earnest did break your vase.
Mom: Well, I don’t want to punish him. He did tell me the truth.
Me: Great. I don’t want you to punish Earnest for lying either. You gave him a second chance and he told the truth. I’m really glad he made that choice. Still, he broke your vase.
Earnest: I could buy Mom a new one.
Mom: That vase cost way more money than you have. Plus, Angie brought it from China. It can’t be replaced.
Me: You’re right, Mom. Earnest can’t replace that special vase, but he offered to buy you a new one. That seems like a logical consequence to me.
Mom: Okay, I guess that makes sense.
Once parents get good at this strategy, there is an even better one. It involves setting the stage for truthfulness before asking the opening question. In the above scenario, it might sound like this: “Earnest, I have a question for you, and it may be hard for you to tell me the truth. After I ask, I want you to think it over for at least five minutes before you answer. I’m going to go into the other room so you can really think. Remember, I will be extra mad if you do not tell the truth. Now, did you break the vase that Angie gave me?”
Giving a child a second chance to do the right thing and/or a prompt to think before acting accomplishes several important goals. First, it gives children practice thinking through consequences before they act. It also reinforces the connection between misdeeds and interpersonal strain, for example, between lies and mistrust. Further, it honors the developmental process by helping children grow into behaviors that are naturally hard for them such as being honest about naughty behavior. Finally, it sets parents and children in partnership with one another rather than at odds.
Remember when I wrote above that these strategies are easiest for parents who possess both clairvoyance and supernatural self-control? It’s pretty obvious why it would help to be clairvoyant when dealing with a child who lies frequently but not always. Perhaps it’s not obvious why parental self-control is so important. Well, the supernatural self-control comes in when a child does the right thing the second time around. It means that the parent must not express anger about the original lie or punish the child in any way for it. If a parent responds punitively whether the child is truthful the second time or not, then the child will learn that there is nothing to lose by continuing to lie.
The other two types of lies mentioned above – lies to manipulate others or to achieve a desired outcome and completely made-up stories that do not have apparent function – are much less common. I would be happy to write about these, but I’m not sure such a post would be of interest to my readers. Let me know in a comment if you want to hear more about the other types of lying.
Suffice it to say here, if you have a child who engages in either of these types of lying, it is a good idea to consult a professional. A pediatrician or a school counselor might be a good place to start, and most children already have each of these professionals in their lives. Don’t be surprised if you end up with a referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist, and go through with an evaluation if one is recommended. For either type of lying, help is available and important.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]