We’re all guilty of white lies, so how do you talk to your children about lying?

By nature, small children are inherently honest—they tell it like it is which is why they are so endearing. Ask a young child a question requiring an honest answer, and you’re apt to receive a brutally honest answer.

What happens along the way then that causes children to resort to lying? Well, they have to reach a certain level of maturity to understand the difference between truth and fabrication for one thing. And once they know that difference, it can be a slippery slope to the telling of falsehoods. We’ve all heard a child use the excuse—“I have a tummy ache…” when faced with doing something they don’t want to do or going somewhere they don’t want to go (when you know they feel perfectly fine). And of course, “the dog ate my homework” is a classic lie in terms of homework assignments (although as a teacher in my previous career, I did have one student bring in the remnants of his shredded homework assignment).

Children are pretty predictable though. Essentially they lie for one of two reasons: to avoid punishment or to get what they want. I was raised in the generation of “spare the rod; spoil the child” and I’m here to tell you that we often did anything to avoid a spanking. If that meant throwing a sibling under the bus, we did so without a second thought. Or if it meant the telling of a fib, it rolled off our tongue without so much as the blink of an eye. After all, in the face of harsh physical punishment, lying was a simple form of self-preservation.

Even if punishments are not physical in nature, but there is a high level of negative emotion associated with them, for example, anger or shame, a child will naturally want to avoid them at all costs and lying is one way to do so.

Even when there is no punishment involved as in the case when a parent simply wants to get to the bottom of something, some children will still resort to lying because they genuinely do not want to disappoint or upset their parent(s). In this case, their motives are honorable even if their lying is not!

Understandably, if a child wants something badly enough, they may “dance around the truth.” We see this when children stretch the truth, or lie by way of omission, or tell a half-truth. In some instances, they may even go so far as to come up with an outright, bald-face lie to get what they want. And despite being caught red-handed, they may stick to their lie no matter what. They can be standing on a stool at the kitchen counter with their hand in the cookie jar, and yet, they’ll adamantly deny they’re getting a cookie. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to keep a straight face in those situations!

And then there are those children who take lying to a whole new level when they use it as a deliberate form of manipulation. Such children are often highly intelligent and they clue in early on that lying can be a useful tool to achieve a desired result. These are the children who lie for the express purpose of getting someone in trouble or they may deliberately play one parent against the other. Unfortunately, this behaviour can become habit forming if not addressed.

So how do you allow your children to get what they want (some of the time) and avoid unpleasant punishments or consequences? As with most things in life, I’m certain there is no easy answer to this question. And I’m sure what might work for one child, may not for another. One thing I wish I had done with my own children though, and in fact, I now routinely employ with my little grandson, is the art of negotiation and compromise. These are valuable skills that prepare children for the real world because there will be times when they cannot get exactly what they want, when they want it. This doesn’t mean employing these tactics all of the time, of course—there are certain things that are simply non-negotiable, but by allowing children some role in decision making, however small, they are bound to feel a measure of control. And with such control, it makes sense that children will be less likely to lie—they don’t need to.

I also wish I had allowed my own children a say in their punishments, for again, I believe that by doing so, children learn a valuable lesson in terms of self-regulating their own behaviour. Without the fear of harsh punishments or emotional turmoil looming over a child, and a say in the consequences of their actions, it only seems reasonable that they will resort less to lying.

Perhaps the greatest impact we can have on our children and grandchildren in terms of lying, however, is to model appropriate behaviour. That’s a tall order because, in doing so, we must pay deliberate attention to our own patterns of behaviour. And let’s face it; lying can be easier than telling the truth sometimes, especially when it comes to white lies. After all, no one wants to hurt another person’s feelings—“Yes, as a matter of fact, you do look fat in that dress…” It takes a lot more effort to deflect a truthful answer—so maybe “How do you feel in that dress?”—or to provide constructive criticism, “Let’s just take a look at what else you have in your closet.”

Since becoming a grandmother, I have made a conscious effort to avoid the white lies I might otherwise be tempted to tell. Children, even young ones, are very astute and make no bones about holding an adult up to the same standards they are expected to abide by.

So it’s time to practice what I preach.

Susan Gnucci is a local author and a proud “nonna” to an adorable four-year-old grand-son. She enjoys sharing her experiences as a first-time grandparent.