Lying - Telling lies

Lying, by itself, ought to concern us. Yet what concerns us most is when a child lies.

Children lie. That is a fact most parents would attest to. They don’t seem  to need instruction on lying; they don’t need encouragement to do so. They just do. Children exaggerate, twist the truth, hide the facts, manufacture stories, and deny the obvious. Young children (ages 4-5) often make up stories and tell tall tales. This is normal activity because  they enjoy hearing stories and making up stories for fun. These young children may blur the  distinction between reality and fantasy.


An older child or adolescent may tell a lie to be self-serving (e.g. avoid doing something or deny responsibility for their actions). Parents should respond to isolated instances of lying by talking with the youngster about the importance of truthfulness, honesty and trust.

Some adolescents discover that lying may be considered acceptable in certain situations such as not telling a boyfriend or girlfriend the real reasons for breaking up because they don’t want to hurt their feelings. Other adolescents may lie to protect their privacy or to help them feel psychologically separate and independent from their parents (e.g. denying they sneaked out late at night with friends). There are some fundamental reasons why we lie .

1. Fear: Fear is a common motivator for lying. Consider the child who lies because she fears that her mother would “blow up” at her, or that dad would take privileges away, or that the teacher would send her (or her friend) to the principal’s office. Such fear may be rational or irrational, but the effect of lying is similar – a temporary shelter from punishment.

What do we do about fear motivated lies? Consider two important implications. First, people who lie out of fear usually know that they have done something that is wrong. Therefore claiming “I’ve told you more than a hundred times…” does not help the person deal with the heart of the error or disobedience. It merely alienates them. We have to get beyond the lie, and address the behaviour that “necessitated” the lie in the first place.

Parents may need to accept that their children lie because they are afraid of their parents’ temperament. It is not surprising that constantly angry, shouting, rigid or restrictive parents often encounter compulsively lying children. Allowing room for negotiation, compromise, listening before accusing, and keeping your volume down usually helps in paving the way for more honest communication.

2. Modelling: Lying is a commonplace behaviour, and children are subject to lies all the time. The problem is that children learn to lie through experiencing others lie. The dilemma is that it is impossible to shield children from lies. One potent source of modelling, however, is from within the home. There is an old proverb that says, “What parents do in moderation, children do in excess.” “Moderate” lying is thought of by many parents as harmless (such as a “white” lie, or a “harmless excuse”) or mistakes (such as an unkept promise), or even purposeful and calculated distortions of the truth (“I had to lie because…”). Children, however, do not appreciate the nuances of a lie. Since it is difficult for parents to control the lies that children will encounter outside the home, it is more useful to start eliminating lies from within the home. Make telling the truth a priority both in instruction ad by example.

3. Over-prediction: People also lie because they over-predict a reaction. One person was late because of personal work said “I knew that the boss would say ‘no’, so I lied that my wife was ill” In reality, the boss would merely have asked a few questions and dropped the matter! One of the most productive ways of addressing over-prediction is to provide a person with clear boundaries, and yet emphasise that these boundaries are negotiable. Making up the rules as you go along, and far too many “don’ts” and restrictions can promote lying behaviour. Whether a child or a president, a liar can be a pretty beloved figure.

Is lying a social skill?

Lying is in some ways a social skill, according to Prof. Feldman of the University of Massachusetts. White Lies are considered to be Okay. If we were always totally honest with other people, we would get ourselves in lots of unpleasant situations e.g Nobody wants to hear that you don’t like the gift you just gave them. At this point, we must distinguish between conventional lies and White lies.

White lying is the lying to get out of a potentially embarrassing or unpleasant situation without causing harm to others. The essence of White lying is the lack of pre planning of your lies ahead of time and making sure that your lies don’t spread out you ensure that no future harm is done and ensure that they do not cause any damage. Regardless of who you are and what you do, white lying can enhance your life and help you avoid major crisis situations.

If a child or adolescent develops a pattern of lying which is serious and repetitive, then professional help may be indicated.

How does habitual Lying differ from casual lying?

Some children, who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, tell elaborate stories which  appear believable. Children or adolescents usually relate these stories with enthusiasm because they  receive a lot of attention as they tell the lie.  

Other children or adolescents, who otherwise seem responsible, fall into a pattern of repetitive lying.  They often feel that lying is the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers and  friends. These children are usually not trying to be bad or malicious but the repetitive pattern of lying  becomes a bad habit.  

There are also some children and adolescents who are not bothered by lying or taking advantage of   others. Other adolescents may frequently use lying to cover up another serious problem. For  example, an adolescent with a serious drug or alcohol problem will lie repeatedly to hide the truth  about where they have been, who they were with, what they were doing, and where the money went.  

Lying can also become a habit formed through constant practice. It is possible that a person can “lie by  reflex”, and when confronted insist that it is the truth. Habitual lying is often strengthened by hostile confrontation. One of the most effective ways of dealing with habitual lying is to give the person an opportunity to retract the lie without fear of consequences.  

Compulsive lying has often been indicated in the early stages of children suffering from social behaviour disorders, primarily that of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Conduct Disorder. The current space does not permit a detailed discussion of such disorders. Suffice it to say that in such cases, compulsive lying usually accompanies other problem behaviours such as stealing, cheating, aggression, violent temper tantrums, skipping school, constantly losing items, and poor behaviour in groups, social settings or with authority figures. Problems such as impulsivity, an apparent inability to link consequences with behaviour, inattentiveness and discomfort with social situations may be at the heart of lying. In such cases, the immediate intervention of a qualified professional.

Parents of children who lie must understand their specific parenting styles and get a deeper understanding of the problem they face.

Should We Punish Lying?  

When we get to the “bottom line”, many parents want to know if they should punish a child for lying, and if so how. Recall that one of the main motivators of lying is fear. Many  children choose to lie because it seems the lesser of two evils, and they imagine they could get away with it. In a sense, lying is punishment-avoidant behaviour. The dilemma regarding punishment for lying is that the parent may risk reinforcing fear, thus increasing the likelihood of lying in the future, rather than decreasing it!  

In addition, there is the risk of confounding the message of   the punishment. While the parent is saying, “I’m punishing  you because you lied”, the child may be thinking, “You are punishing me because you found out the truth.” For the child, punishment is not associated with lying but being found out. The next time around, the child finds new ways to misrepresent the truth, and the parent is left in a quandary of suspicion and distrust.  

Consider some important issues regarding punishment and lying:  

1) Punishment is most effective in limiting  habitual lying (discussed earlier) since  punishment is designed to reduce a learned behaviour. The problem is that punishment is not designed to teach and reinforce an alternate behaviour. Punishment without loving and careful instruction is a useless tool, and one that  often leads to excessiveness and abuse.  

2) Punishing a lie when it is motivated by fear, modelling or overprediction tends to be ineffective in the long run. Seek the deeper motivation for the lie and work at the source  rather than the symptom.  

3) Use punishment as the last option, not the first reaction. Parents are often surprised how soft messages excel in impact over hard messages. For example, “You really hurt mom and dad when you lie,” is often more effective than, “I’m really going to hurt you because you lied.”  

Above all, recognise that the purpose and desire of every parent is to encourage honesty. That is a characteristic, not just a behaviour. When all is said and done, we want our children to love the truth, not to fear it; and to hate lies, not merely the punishment that lying brings.