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"I Didn't Do It": The Truth About Lying

Most, if not all, parents of children age 3 and older have heard the phrase “I didn’t do it.” The challenge with this statement is how to decipher whether or not it is true. Research has consistently found that people, even people trained to detect lying (e.g., police officers, judges), are poor at identifying honesty and lying. Unfortunately, because of the inaccuracy of our judgment, we often end up believing our children when they are lying and doubting them when they are telling the truth. Try not to get too down on yourself as a parent. Lying is a confusing and difficult topic related to parenting and child development. Consider this: Lying is one of the few things that is normal (developmentally speaking) and abnormal (or unhealthy) at the same time. This article provides parents with an overview of child development related to lying and offers suggestions on how to foster honesty.

Researchers note that lying occurs in typically developing children and thus is not always considered unusual or abnormal. This is one area in which psychological research meshes with our Christian beliefs. As Christians we are very familiar with original sin and the reality that we bathe in sinful behavior and thoughts from the beginning of our lives. “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3). Research on lying reports that children as young as three years old tell lies (Ahern, Lyon, and Quas, 2011). The best studies done on this age group use a guessing game with incentives. The child is left alone in a room with a covered toy, having been told that he or she will need to guess what the toy is. The study found that 80 percent of children three and four years of age will peek at the toy and lie about it. Lying at this developmental level is usually to avoid punishment. Using the example of this study, the children fear the experimenter will punish them (e.g., remove their reward), so they lie to avoid that negative consequence. Children this young also often blur the distinction between reality and fantasy and thus tell lies in the form of stories or tall tales. The good news is that children age 3 to 6 have difficulty keeping the story of their lie consistent over time and are thus susceptible to being identified as dishonest, leading to a teaching opportunity for parents.

Lying gets worse as children age. In the study described above, by the age of 6, children lied 96 percent of the time. Even worse, they are able to tell a lie and keep the story consistent over time. School-age children lie with increased frequency and increased skill. This newfound lying ability makes it more difficult for parents to identify the truth. School-age children also lie for new reasons: they tend to lie when playing games to increase the odds of winning; they lie to cover their transgressions; they lie to avoid responsibilities (e.g., “I already cleaned my room”); and they lie to control others. This lying trend continues through adolescence for nearly one-third of children who began telling lies at an early age. Adolescents lie for many of the same reasons. However, they also lie to protect other people. For example, they have learned the importance of keeping a secret and will tell lies to avoid sharing the truth disclosed to them by a peer in confidence.

Most adults realize that lying does not protect them from consequences and often ends in more severe consequences than telling the truth. Why, then, do children lie so frequently? Well, first of all, they see adults in their lives as “liars.” At a young age, this perspective is mostly due to a lack of understanding. Young children see any misinformation as lying. If you tell your child you are going to get pizza one evening but an important meeting gets in the way, your child will often interpret your change of plans as deception. As children age, they may also observe lying in their parents. In fact, they are sometimes taught to lie. Parents must recognize their power as a model and an influence in their children’s lives. All too often parents try to talk with their children about honesty but behave in ways that do not match their own teachings. For example, most parents will teach their children to show appreciation and gladness when they receive a gift (even if they do not like it). However, a child may watch as a parent opens a gift and says, “I love it.” Yet later they observe the parent talking negatively about it to a friend.

The other reason children learn to lie and continue to lie is because they are intelligent and have learned that there is little risk in lying. If they lie and avoid consequences, they have reaped great dividends from their lies. Conversely, if they lie and get caught, most children simply receive a consequence for the initial infraction, not for lying.

Parents are right in wanting to teach their children to not lie. Honesty is one way we express gratitude to God, the source of truth, for the eternal life he gives us in Christ. And our loving Lord warns us to avoid lying because it is a sin that demonstrates hatred: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts” (Proverbs 26:28a). God’s wisdom reminds us that honesty and transparency are central to establishing trust and demonstrating love in relationships. Our families, like other important relationships, are built on trust. It is very difficult for a dishonest person to maintain healthy relationships. From the world’s perspective, responsibility and personal accountability (through honesty) are very important for children to develop. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is the framework for success in this life. When our children take responsibility for their behaviors, they experience the consequences (good and bad) of their behavior and thus learn the importance of their behavior and their choices.

Many parents believe dealing with lying is one of the most difficult parenting tasks. Research suggests that the most important parenting variable related to increasing honesty in children is the parent’s ability to teach their children that honesty is important and lying is not acceptable. Studies that observed children lying in their home setting found that only 1 percent of parents disciplined children for lying. If a child breaks a lamp and says, “I didn’t do it,” parents typically discipline the child for breaking the lamp but not for lying. In this paradigm, children learn quickly that lying is worth the risk. Parents need to use every mistruth told by a child as a teaching opportunity. When children lie, discipline them for their dishonesty rather than only the behavior they lied about. This takes skill, however, because more discipline does not actually decrease lying. Research on family settings suggests children lie more in high discipline homes because they believe lying is the only way to avoid discipline. So rather than spending too much time on discipline, do your best to teach your children the importance of honesty. Be clear that lying is a sin. When your children acknowledge the sin, be clear that they are forgiven in Jesus. Point to Jesus as the motivation for honesty.

When working with young children’s lies, talk with them about the high costs of dishonesty and teach them that it hurts your feelings when they tell lies. With school-age children and adolescents, have an in-depth conversation about lying. Talk with them about why it happened, what they could have done differently, and the consequences of lying. For all children, be sure to help them understand that lying will always be treated as a serious offense. The best consequence for lying is to have them do something to symbolically repair trust. Give them something to do around the house that they typically do, to help you rebuild trust in them. After the consequence is given, remind them that you forgive them and let them know that you intend to trust them and that you believe they will be more honest with you in the future. If lying occurs again, treat it as a new offense and start from scratch.

Lying is a part of normal development as children follow the sinful nature within them. But lying throughout childhood, as adolescents, and into adulthood can have devastating consequences in all areas of their lives, especially the spiritual. Chronic lying and long-term use of deceit is most often a symptom of a larger problem. If your child is lying frequently, in spite of your use of parenting strategies and law and gospel training, you will want to talk with your pastor and your child’s teacher or pediatrician and consider getting external support from a mental health professional to support you in developing a home environment that fosters honesty.

By Casey Holtz, from Parents Crosslink © 2013 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Photo by Alex Gorzen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Casey Holtz, PhD, is a psychologist counseling children and adolescents.

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