What is a Lie?

That’s a silly question, isn’t it?  We all know that lying is saying something that is not true and acting as though it is true.  Strictly speaking, that is the case.  What is a lie that a parent should be concerned about and what should parents do about it?  That is a more difficult question, and I think that all parents face this at one point or another.  Kids lie when they fear a bad outcome or when they don’t want you to know that they are messing up because you will be so upset or because they’ll be so embarrassed or all of the above.

Often this question shows up in my office when parents are in conflict with a grade school age child.  It can be infuriating to a parent to have an eight year old stand alone in the kitchen by the spilled juice and tell you he didn’t spill it.  Some parents find this tremendously disrespectful,  and they feel powerless in this situation.  As a result, they go to some effort to get the “offender” to admit his “crime.”  If you have a really fiesty child, he or she might continue to deny.  You can pursue this line of questioning and add punishments for lying and perhaps yelling and stomping as the conflict escalates.

My advice is to go with your common sense and the evidence you have.   Young children don’t want to get into trouble, and they do and say foolish things to avoid it.  Especially if you are somewhat harsh in punishment, your child is likely to deny wrongdoing.  Think of it as taking the fifth (in a very clumsy way).  So, if you walk into the kitchen and find juice all over the floor and your eight year old standing there, ask him to clean it up.  If he was not supposed to pour his own juice (because he might spill it), cleaning up the mess is a reasonable consequence.  He might continue to protest that he didn’t do it.  Avoid being sidetracked into that argument.  Stick with the evidence and logical consequence.  If you can keep your cool, your child will be less likely to deny the obvious in the future.

This kind of “lying” or denial often fades out in later grades and middle school but if your child has difficulty with homework, it will persist.  Very often these are the children with ADHD  or some deficits in executive function (organizing time and stuff).  You ask, “Do you have any homework?”  The answer is, “No.”  After several days of this you become suspicious.  At this point let your child know that you need to talk to people at school to find out what the homework situation is.  Tell your child first to keep him in the loop, not to threaten him.  If he does know the scoop, he might tell you then.  But in my experience these kids might be confused and overwhelmed by homework and lacking the systems they need to keep up with it.  Once you are in touch with teachers, you can shift from punishing for lying to a more helpful stance of problem solving about homework. 

It turns out that “lying” probably tells you something about the relationship you have with your child.  If you are prone to explosive anger or harsh punishments, it is my experience that your child is more likely to “lie.”  Of course, the kindly, soft-hearted parents have kids who “lie” as well, especially if the children are overwhelmed with school work.  “Lying” is an immature way of solving a problem.  Your children are immature (because they are children), not immoral.  If you respond by holding them responsible (eg, “You need to do your homework.  Let’s figure out how to help you keep track of it.”) and helping with problem solving, there will be less need to “lie.” 

How have you dealt with this problem?  I would be interested to know.

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6 Responses to “What is a Lie?”
  1. Hi Carolyn – This is invaluable information. I love your common sense approach.
    I see grade school age kids and this issue comes up often. Parents get upset and rigid abt things that are just not that important and not really indicative of deeper “character.”
    ty, Kathy

  2. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Kathy,
    Thanks for your feedback. Yes, I find that some parents are very worried that their children will grow up to be bad people. A little education about child development and problem-solving parenting can relieve parents’ worries and give them good tools.

  3. Carolyn,

    What a lovely gift to give parents–the reminder that being immature is not the same as being immoral. And I think that all of us who parent need to remind ourselves that our children’s behavior is often at least as much about us as it is about them.


  4. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Ann,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I like the way you put it, that our children’s behavior is as much about us as about them. Often when we as parents need to change, we feel blamed. The fact is that we are all operating in a system where everyone affects everyone else. It’s just that the adults have more likelihood of being able to start the change.

  5. Carolyn, I love the idea that lying is an immature way to solve a real problem because then it gives us as parents a non-confrontation way into the heart of the matter.
    Great post.

  6. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Allison,
    Thanks for the kinds words. I agree. If we remember that children are learning how to interact in difficult situations, we can react in a more helpful manner.