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Truth, Lies, and Imagination

Twelve Ways to Encourage the Development of Imagination and Honesty

Michelle Ress via Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: Michelle Ress via Flickr/Creative Commons

Why Do Children Lie?

We want our children to have lively, creative imaginations. It’s world-expanding when they spice up their lives with vivid imaginary creatures, ideas, and situations. But sometimes imagination slides over into the realm of intentional dishonesty, and that is not such a good thing.

Like adults, children can lie for a lot of different reasons, including

  • Avoiding criticism or punishment (“He hit me first!”)
  • Wishful thinking (“I’m really good at bike-riding.”)
  • Enlivening a story (“And then we saw a giant shark!”)
  • Enhancing their image (“She was sad, so I gave her all my toys.”)
  • Getting attention (“I think I broke my arm.”)
  • Acquiring something (telling Grandma, “Daddy always lets me have cookies.”)
  • Feeling overwhelmed by expectations (“I cleaned up my room.”)

How Does Lying Develop?

  • By the time children are 2 or 3 years old, they begin to realize adults don’t know everything.
  • From 4 to 6, kids get better at lying; they learn to match their facial expressions and tone of voice to their words. During this period, they’ll usually own up to the lie if you don’t challenge it, but, rather, ask them respectfully to explain.
  • From 6 to 8, kids can lie more frequently, and be better at it. The lies get more complicated as their language mastery develops, and they understand more about how others think.
  • By 8, most children can lie successfully and plausibly.

How Can You Encourage Your Child’s Imagination, Without Encouraging Lying?

  1. Connection. Be warm, patient, and loving with your child. The foundation for honesty is a desire to maintain trusting relationships.
  2. Attunement. Listen to what’s underneath the lie. Is it a cry for attention, a desire to avoid criticism, embarrassment, imaginative enthusiasm, or something else?
  3. Story-telling spin. When your child is making something up, try saying, “That’s a great story. Should we make it into a book?”
  4. Differentiation. When a child says something you’re dubious about, ask, “Just joking? Or for real?”
  5. Avoidance. Help your child avoid situations where they might want to lie. If you can see that your child has spilled their milk, don’t ask if they did it. Instead, try this: “It looks like some milk got spilled. Let’s clean it up.”
  6. Appreciation or attention. If your child lies to make themself look good, they might be needing more appreciation or attention. Look for positive ways to give that to them.
  7. Walking the walk. Be open, honest, and truthful with your child and others in the family, even with the small stuff, and even when you’re embarrassed, or don’t feel like talking about it. When you say you’ll be gone for five minutes, make sure it’s really five minutes. When you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t, own up to it. Don’t lie to evade a conversation, but say, “I don’t feel like talking about it right now.”
  8. Talking the talk. At every relevant opportunity, emphasize the importance of honesty in your family, and the connection between trust and honesty.
  9. Rewarding courage. Make it safe for your child to tell the truth. When your child owns up to something, start by praising them for their courage. Reward your child for being brave enough to be honest, even if it takes a while to get there after an initial lie.
  10. Expressing your disappointment. Tell your child how it makes you feel when they lie to you: “When you don’t tell the truth, I feel sad and disappointed.”
  11. Books. Read books and tell stories that show the value of honesty. The best stories have a positive message—the good things that happen when people tell the truth, rather than the horrible things that happen to those who lie.
  12. Reassurance. If you’re worried your child is lying about something serious like bullying or abuse, reassure them they’ll be safe if they tell the truth, and that you can help them make things better.

Complication: So-called “White Lies”

It isn’t easy to teach little kids the difference between a “white lie” that saves someone’s feelings, and a “real lie,” where the aim is to deceive someone. It’s probably best to leave that fine-tuning until kids are six or seven, and old enough to understand the difference. In the meantime, try to keep your own white lies to a minimum, at least when your child is in hearing range. If you’re caught, explain what you’re doing and why.

When Do You Need Professional Help?

If the lies have become habitual, and you feel unable to create a trusting relationship with your child, you might benefit from family therapy. If lying is accompanied by other problematic behavior, like stealing or damaging property, or hurting animals or other children, it’s definitely time to get professional help.

Honesty Develops

As with everything else, honesty develops over time, and you can depend on your child making (honest!) mistakes along the way. You can help ensure your child grows into a trustworthy adult by being honest and open yourself, with your child and other members of your family, and with everyone else you encounter.

For More on Truth, Lies, and Imagination

"The Truth about Lying," by Stuart Shanker

Lies: Why Children Lie, and What to Do,” by Raising Children Network

What to Do When My Child Lies? 13 Ways to Respond, Prevent, and Strengthen Honest Communication,” by Miriam Mason Martineau

Best Books for Teaching Honesty to Children,” by The Best Children’s Books

Teaching Kids to Tell the Truth,” by Brandon Keim

Teaching Your Kids to Be Honest,” by Joanne Stern

The Truth About Lying,” by Sharlene K. Johnson

Age by Age Guide to Lying,” by Sarah Gonser

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