Punishments for Lying? Your Kids Might Be Too Scared to Tell the Truth

We don’t need a study to know that lying is common among children, but just in case you thought your child never lied, chances are... they have. A study from the University of Waterloo observed kids in their own homes and found that 96% of them have lied at some point. Still, as parents, it’s hurtful when we discover our kids are spinning a yarn.

Lying by the Years

Lying begins when kids are around two or three years old. We may even find it adorable as they deny eating the frosting off the cake with the evidence smeared on their face and shirt. At this stage, there’s no advanced planning… They just hope you’ll believe them and won’t be upset!

By age four, kids up their game and begin to think about what mom and dad does or doesn’t know about the situation at hand. The lies become a bit more elaborate with some background story. A study found that this age group was more likely to connect positive emotions to their lie, but negative emotions to confessing. This resonates with the fact they are fully aware lying is bad, but they still want to please their parents, so they lie to cover up their dirty deeds.

At about seven or eight, kids have the ability to intentionally lie by plotting and creating a storyline and playing the lead role so convincingly, we believe it. They know lying isn’t acceptable, but sometimes feel trapped or scared of the consequences. At this age, they are developing a sense of self and don’t want to think of themselves as being a “bad” person. In fact, the study showed that kids this age felt the opposite about the outcomes of lying compared to the four year olds. At this age, they associated guilt with lying and positive emotions with confessing. They were also more open to discussing the immorality of lying and the value of confession.

Does Punishment Encourage Honesty?

Researchers at McGill's Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology conducted a study led by Professor Victoria Talwar. The experiment was simple: Leave a child alone in a room for one minute with a toy, and instruct them not to peek at the toy when the adults left. About ⅔ of the kids (ages four to eight) peeked, but kids who were at the older end of the spectrum were less likely to peek.

When the kids were asked whether or not they peeked, about ⅔ of the kids lied. Older children were more likely to tell lies and they were pretty good at sticking with their story. Something worth noting is that this research showed children were less likely to be honest if they were afraid of the consequences. If they felt that telling the truth would please the adult, they were more likely to fess up.

How to Handle Lying

Based on Talwar’s research, we know that threatening kids with punishment doesn’t necessarily encourage them to tell the truth. However, letting kids know that telling the truth won’t lead to punishment and would actually make you happier does encourage honesty. Whether you discipline your kid for lying or not, here are some things to keep in mind when you suspect your kid is feeding you a line:

  • Stay calm. Take a few deep breaths.
  • Don’t accuse them of lying or label them a liar. Listen to their side of the story and give them a way out, to come clean without punishment. Then chat about the offense and how they can handle it differently next time, without lying.
  • There’s a reason why they lied or were tempted to lie. It could be fear of punishment, a way to avoid embarrassment, or even fitting in at school. Focus on the issue that prompted them to lie, not the lie itself.
  • Talk about how lying affects relationships, and how it’s hard to trust someone who lies. Lying creates barriers in relationships and closeness is lost. Quite simply, we just don’t feel secure or happy around people that lie.
  • Finally, role model honesty. When they overhear you lying to the PTA chair that you have a dentist appointment and can’t come to the meeting, they learn that even the “small” lies are part of normal life.

How do you handle your kids’ lies? Share your advice with us!

Tags : relationships   development   

Summer Kaplan
I can still remember the fear of getting caught and punished for little white lies. I really hope my kids trust me enough to tell me the truth.
Bea Elliason
Unrelated, but how can you get mad at that face? lol