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I was on a school camp once when the camp coordinator came to me and asked if a girl, he had sent to me had come to speak to me. She hadn’t come to speak to me and was a little confused. I didn’t know anything. So, I called Rita and asked her why she told the camp leader she had spoken to me – she was speechless, she had been caught out!

As much as we might like to think that our children will always tell the truth, the reality is that lying is something most children experiment with at one point or another. Teachers, parents and guardians should keep in mind that telling lies is a natural part of child development and that in most instances children outgrow this behaviour.

Children learn to lie from about the age of two. The first lies children learn to tell are denials of doing something wrong. From the age of three they also learn to tell ‘white lies’. These are lies that are told to benefit other people or to be polite. For example, a child learns that you don’t tell granny about it when you’ve made a surprise birthday cake for her. And when your friend’s mother gives you a present you should thank her, even if the present is something you really don’t like.

Telling lies well is a social skill which we teach children, and young children find lying convincingly difficult. They often fail at this when they are asked further questions.

A child as young as age three is perfectly capable of knowingly telling a lie to avoid getting into trouble or to get something he or she wants. Some other common reasons for lying in school-age children include:

  • Wishful imaginative play
  • To avoid something they don’t want to do (such as clean up toys)
  • To avoid punishment
  • A desire to brag to friends/classmates to boost status and impress them
  • A desire to not disappoint parents when expectations are too high
  • Unhappiness with something in their lives
  • An attempt to get attention.

An article on the internet called How to Handle Lying in Children provided some helpful tips to keep in mind when dealing with lying:

  • Get to the root cause of the lie. Is your child simply telling a tall tale as part of fantasy play? Or is she deliberately trying to mislead you because she doesn’t want to be punished?
  • Give your child consequences, rather than punishment. What’s the difference? Punishment comes from a place of anger whereas consequences are focused on correcting the misbehaviour.
  • Do not make your child feel like he cannot come to you. If a child is worried that you will be angry, he may try to avoid telling you the truth at all costs. The important thing is to help your child feel secure, safe, and supported so that he knows he can talk to you without losing your affection and love. Explain to your child that if he tells you the truth, you will not become angry, and that the truth is more important to you than anything else.
  • Be clear about your expectations. Tell your child that lying is something that you do not want in your home. Let her know that telling the truth is just as important as other good behaviour that you expect from her such as speaking to you in a respectful manner.
  • Assess your own behaviour when it comes to telling the truth. Do you often resort to lying when you want to avoid a situation or to get something you want? For instance, if your child hears you telling a neighbour that you cannot feed her cat while she’s on a trip because you have a sick relative when the truth is that you secretly don’t like that cat, then your child will get the message that adults lie when it’s convenient for them.

Psychologists tell us that lying is as much a developmental milestone as any other cognitive task. Children who are brighter have a better ability to tell lies!

Once children are old enough to understand the difference between truth and lies, it’s good to encourage and support them, to tell the truth. You can do this by emphasising the importance of honesty in your family and praising your child for being honest.

By Mark Potterton

Dr Mark Potterton is the principal of Sacred Heart College Primary and the co-author of the book Fairness for All: Doing Discipline Differently.