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Lies, All Lies!

Lying: In a nutshell, it’s to be expected but it shouldn’t be disregarded.

There are different types of lies, and children lie for different reasons. A child’s developmental stage and his stage of moral development can help you understand the when and why of your child’s dishonesty and if it’s time to seek some outside help.

From embellishments and harmless exaggerations to intentional and habitual deceit, lying is on a continuum. Children as they get older grow into lying. Behavioral researchers like Wendy Gamble, Ph.D., have identified four basic types of lies: “prosocial” or “little white lies”; “self-enhancement” lies to save face; “selfish” lies to protect oneself or hide a misdeed; and “antisocial” lies that hurt someone else on purpose.

Some types of lying are considered developmentally appropriate and other forms of lying are more likely to emerge at specific developmental stages. “Morality” is generally also considered a developmental process and becomes more sophisticated as a child grows.

Lawrence Kohlberg proposed the following sequential stages of moral development:
Avoiding punishment
Doing right for self-serving reasons
Fitting in and pleasing others
Doing one’s duty
Following agreed upon rules
Acting on principles

Young children have a freewheeling relationship with reality. “Magical thinking” is in full swing and children this age don’t necessarily know the difference between truth and fiction. You may hear tall tales about imaginary people or creatures. A 4-year-old child may tell self-serving fibs or intentionally deceive to avoid reprimand, without understanding that what she is doing is wrong. Parents start to socialize preschool age children to tell “white lies” to avoid hurting others’ feelings.

School-age children
By age 5 or 6, children have learned the difference between lies and truth. The motives for lying become more complex. Children this age experiment with “selfish” lying to avoid punishments or to gain some advantage. A child this age may also lie to avoid disappointing a parent. By age 8 a child’s social world expands and “self-enhancement” lying emerges to save face or avoid embarrassment. Some children may lie and exaggerate in an attempt to increase their social status or social image.

Children this age begin to realize the greatest control they can have is the control of information. Parents may see new secretiveness, not saying as much, glossing over details. This is the start of lying by omission. There are also occasional lies over homework and chores.

One of the developmental tasks of adolescents is separating from their parents and establishing their own identity. Peer approval becomes more important than parental approval. This is fertile ground for conflict. Lying may become a way to preserve a sense of power and separation from parents, or a tool to anger parents. Omitting information is also a way of rebuffing “intrusive” questioning. Some adolescents lie to cover up serious behavioral problems or illegal activities. Children and adolescents need some level of privacy. However, a child caught lying may temporarily be deprived of some privacy by his parents.

Parental honesty is a primary influence on the development of truthfulness in children. Be aware of the example you are setting. Paying attention to what your child is lying about may provide clues to underlying motives, helping you to more effectively intervene. Don’t give you child a chance to lie. If you know of your child’s wrongdoing, proceed directly to the conversation and consequence.

Often in the heat of the moment, you may find yourself searching for a special consequence that will change her behavior for the rest of her life! However, your job as a parent is to consistently send the “message” that certain behavior is not acceptable. Keep your consequences short and simple. If you find it necessary to pull back on a freedom or privilege, remember to also provide a way for your child to “climb out of the hole” and try again. Trust is built on honesty. Teach that lying damages relationships and can lead to a loss of respect.

If your child’s untruthfulness has become a chronic concern or if there is a sudden increase in a child’s lying and you are not able to discern its causes, consider getting some outside help. These problems are typically very workable and improve quickly.                

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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