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James A. Powell Psy.D.
James A. Powell Psy.D.

Why Children Lie and What To Do About It

Practical responses to eliminate lying by children.

One of the more frustrating things that a parent encounters with a child is when they lie. Almost all parents try to teach their children to be truthful and honest. When a child lies, it can seem like a personal negative judgment on our parenting abilities. Many parents I work with are more frustrated with the lies than the action the lie was about. If we are to confront this issue with our children then we must remember that the way a person thinks evolves over time.

Children and adolescents do not think like adults. An experiment done in a university setting with children under the age of 9 demonstrates clearly the way children think. The research setting is such that there is a long room that is empty except for a single chair at one end, a dartboard on the wall, and a bright yellow line that runs from one side to the other of the room. The experimenter takes the child into the room and hands him a bunch of Velcro darts and relates the following: “The rules are that you have to stand behind the yellow line. You cannot cross it. For each dart that sticks to the dartboard, you will get a piece of candy. For each that misses or falls to the floor, you will not.” The researcher then tells the child that he has to leave for a few minutes to run an errand, but the child can go ahead and throw the darts.

Unbeknownst to the child, there is a camera hidden in a corner of the room recording what goes on. When the researcher returns almost all of the darts are usually stuck to the dartboard, even though the yellow line has been deliberately set so far back that the average child will miss most of the time. The researcher then asks the child if they stayed behind the line, and usually, more than 90% will say they did. Thus they lie.

The second phase of the experiment involves a different group of children of the same age. The same instructions are repeated to this group, with one item added. The researcher tells the child “See this empty chair? It is not really empty. There is an invisible princess in it. I can see and talk to her, but you cannot. She will watch for me while I am gone and tell me everything that happened.” This time over 90% of the children will not cross the line.

This is not due to some sort of emotional problem or parental failure but instead to the developmental age of the child. The child believes that they are being watched during the second phase of the experiment and will follow the rules. They genuinely do not understand why parents are upset that they lied. In their minds, they are simply telling you what you want to hear to make you happy, and what is wrong with that?

Now look at adolescents, whose brains have physically evolved beyond the young child’s brain. If I were to tell them that there was an invisible princess in the chair none of them would believe me. However, they still do not reason like an adult.

Consider the case of a parent who brought his 14-year-old in to see me and was furious at the child. All his son wanted to do was play videogames. The father finally set him down and told him the following: “When you get home from school I want you to do four things. First, you are to mow the lawn. After that, you are to vacuum the living room. Then I want you to change out the dishes in the dishwasher. Finally, I want you to take all of your dirty clothes from your room to the laundry room. Then and only then can you play videogames.” The father had the son repeat this back to him and then left for work.

When the father got home the lawn was not mowed, the vacuuming not done, the dishes not changed out, and there were dirty clothes all over the son’s room. The child was sitting there playing videogames. The dad asked the son why and the child calmly stated: “The mower was out of gas.”

To an adolescent, this way of thinking makes perfect sense. The father said to do four things and listed them in order. Since he could not do number one obviously he could not do any of the others. Therefore the only thing to do was play videogames. The child was not being sneaky: this is just the maturity level at which teenagers think.

Most people grow out of this way of thinking as adults. However, if you judge a child or adolescent using the way you think, you are probably going to come up with an erroneous conclusion. Think like the child or adolescent does and you can then adjust what you say. Most supposed “lying” will then disappear.

There are actions you can take with children of all ages that will eliminate the supposed lying and teach the child to be honest. Suppose that you hear a crash and walk into a room where your child is standing next to a broken vase holding a baseball. Most parents will say something like “What happened?”

Consider the options from the child's viewpoint: the child can tell you the truth and will be punished, or tell you something like “I don’t know” and hope that you will believe them. Their choice is thus between a 100% chance of being punished or a 50% chance of getting away with doing something wrong.

To change the odds in your favor I suggest never asking a question you know the answer to. Instead, you could say something like “You broke the vase while playing in the house. Your punishment is to wash out two commodes and wash two windows. However, if you want to apologize and tell me what you should have been doing instead, you only have to do one toilet and one window.” The odds are now reversed, and the child will have to acknowledge their mistake in their own words (thus encouraging ownership of what they say and do) and “tell the truth” in order to receive a lesser punishment. You have now taught them to tell the truth when they do something wrong, and the child is likely to start doing this spontaneously when they misbehave.

About the Author
James A. Powell Psy.D.

James A. Powell, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist with 48 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and adults. He currently works with the U.S. Air Force in a mental health treatment center.

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