OK, but when you do catch your kid in a lie, what should you do? First, because lies often go hand-in-hand with misdeeds, you need to separate the two in your mind. You have to address the fact that your kid broke the TV, and you also need to address the fact that she lied about it—but don’t conflate the two, because they’re different. If your kid broke the TV but was actually honest about it, you should, hard as it may be, commend her for her truth-telling even though you’re ready to kill her about the TV. “Say, ‘I'm glad you told me that it was you who broke the TV, but I'm still really concerned,” says Victoria Talwar, a developmental psychologist at McGill University who studies lying in children and frequently collaborates with Lee.
Simply put, the best way to address a child’s lie is calmly. Use the moment to talk to him about the importance of honesty. “Point out what he has just done, and tell him what you expect him to do, which is to tell the truth regardless—and tell him why it’s important to tell the truth,” Lee says. Explain the importance of trust. Lee cautions against punishing kids—particularly young preschoolers—for lying, because they often do not fully understand the concept of honesty. Punishing a kid for lying can also backfire, because kids understand that they only get punished if they are caught lying, so they may continue to lie but simply be more careful about it.
Instead, consider praising them when they are honest and repeatedly stressing the virtues of honesty. When Lee and his colleagues tested how well various stories curbed kids’ tendencies to lie, they found that the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, in which Washington confesses to chopping down his father’s tree and is commended for doing so, was far more effective than The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which warns against lying by highlighting its negative consequences. Also, in general, research suggests that children raised in punitive authoritarian environments—in which they are harshly punished either verbally or physically—are more likely to lie than are children who are punished for transgressions more gently, for instance with time-outs or scolding. So strict, punitive parenting practices are not necessarily the best approach to raising honest children.
All this said, don’t be afraid to discuss and even employ natural consequences to deter your kids from lying. Tell little Susie that if she keeps lying, you may not always be inclined to believe what she says. And if your kid, like mine, lies about needing to use the potty to stall bedtime, tell him he gets one chance to go potty before bedtime, at whatever time he chooses; if he plays the potty card when he doesn’t really need to go, he may end up uncomfortable—or even soil himself—later on, which may be the very lesson he needs. (Unless you are in the middle of potty training—then all bets are off.)
What should you do if you think your kids’ lies are a sign of a deeper problem? Excessive lying, particularly in older kids, can be a symptom of conduct disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder, so if you’re worried, talk to your pediatrician or consult a child psychologist. Generally speaking, Lee says, kids who have behavioral problems tend to not only be frequent liars, but also poor liars. (Little kids are generally bad liars—particularly when they’re asked follow-up questions—but by the time they’re 7 or 8, they get pretty good.)
When your kids are old enough to understand, you’ll also want to color your discussions about honesty a tad, because our society values honesty as well as politeness, and the two can contradict. “Why is it that you don't blurt out ‘this is the most disgusting pie I've ever had’ at somebody's house? What are the ways that you can handle these situations where you're still being an honest person as much as possible, but you're also not being a rude or disrespectful or ungrateful person?” Crossman explains. “Talk about the importance of honesty, but caution about saying things that are mean.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Don’t expect your kids to be honest if you’re not. “If you are sending your kids the message that truth is really important, but they see you telling occasional small fibs to get out of things, they will see lying as a strategy they can use,” Talwar says. Adults lie so frequently—to kids, friends, our own parents, telemarketers—that we almost don’t even notice it. But our kids certainly do, and they love to emulate us. So the next time you catch your kid in a fib, ask yourself whether he may have learned it from you, and then consider giving him a bit of a break. After all, Talwar says, “It's a tricky thing to be honest all the time.”