When Your Kid Is A Lying Liar-Pants

by Rita Templeton
Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

“Wait a minute – did you brush?” I narrowed my eyes suspiciously at my son, who had gotten ready for bed a little too quickly.

“Yep,” he said, equally quickly. And when I leaned in to inspect, the fact that his breath smelled like a port-a-potty on a summer day made it clear that he was lying through his (unclean) teeth. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that big of a deal (I mean, to anyone who wasn’t directly in the path of his breath). But the fact is, it wasn’t the first lie I’d caught him in – or any of my kids, actually. Nothing major, just aggravating and unnecessary dishonesty about dumb stuff.

In my mind I tend to over-blow things, so I sometimes worry that – given their penchant for stretching the truth – their only career choices will be politician or fast-talking car salesman. Or worse, that their now-minor untruths will turn into massive transgressions like extramarital affairs or embezzling or something else that could land them in jail. Like any parent, I wondered if I was doing something wrong, steering them down the road to sociopathy.

As it turns out, lying is actually a part of healthy, normal childhood development. And there are many reasons a kid will tell a lie: for attention (“My tummy hurts!”), to save themselves from consequences, to practice creativity, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or to establish their “cool” identity among their friends. I distinctly remember, in fourth grade, telling the kids at my new school that my family was getting a Camaro. We lived in a trailer, just above the poverty line, and drove an old-ass Crown Victoria.

Basically, lying is just a part of kids learning to solve problems, but going about it in a really crappy way. Mastering the art of problem-solving involves a lot of trial and error; through experience, you learn what works and what doesn’t. A lie allows kids to test the waters, to see if it’s a viable solution to whatever issue they’re experiencing. Additionally, a young child’s relative lack of impulse control – i.e., they know not to touch the shiny thing but can’t help doing it anyway – means that they do a lot of things that will displease their parents, so they begin to try and cover it up to avoid the fallout. (I mean … can you blame them?)

Lying also indicates that they’re gaining new cognitive and social abilities, which is a good thing! Think about it: telling the truth demands nothing of them. Lying, on the other hand, means they’ve got to construct the lie itself, making it as convincing as possible, and then keep up the charade. It’s a mental juggling act of sorts, and therefore a great way to test out those new abilities. Frustrating, sure, but at least their brains are developing.

It doesn’t help that we tend to send mixed messages that some lies are okay (tact, for example: telling Great-Aunt Gretchen that her gift of a hand-knitted tissue box cozy is just what we wanted). I mean, separating such “acceptable” lies from the rest are easy for us, because we’re grownups with years of experience. But for kids, it’s a new concept that’s bound to be a little confusing. Not only that, but they may see us telling little white lies to weasel out of things ourselves (admit it — you do it too!). And how can we expect them to be paragons of honesty if we’re actively demonstrating that it’s okay not to be?

It’s a relief to know that lying doesn’t mean our kids are terrible people, but it’s not exactly a behavior we want to encourage. So we’ve got to make it worth their while to be honest about things, which probably means restructuring the way we currently react to a lie.

So what should we parents do when we catch our kids in a lie?

Well, first, child expert Meghan Leahy recommends take a minute to check your emotions. And if you know that you’re child lied, don’t beat around the bush and ask them if they lied. Just get straight to the point.

Then, we have to separate the lie and the incident they’re lying about. They’re two different things, and we need to treat them accordingly. Address the issue at hand – a broken window, for example – independently from the “I don’t know how it got broken.” The lying can be addressed later, once the more pressing issue is taken care of. Plus, problems are never solved by a hot head. A lie isn’t a time-sensitive matter; it’ll still be there when tempers have cooled off a little.

Speaking of being mad: we’ve gotta remember not to say, “Tell the truth. I won’t be mad,” and then get mad anyway. What does that do? It shows our kids that honesty backfires, making them less likely to want to fess up in the future.

Honesty can be hard for anyone, especially when you know it can get you into hot water. So to encourage it, we can positively reinforce honesty and integrity whenever we get the chance: like when a cashier accidentally gives us too much change, we can give it back instead of making a beeline for the door and woo-hooing all the way through the parking lot.

For older kids who are defying parental rules (and then lying to cover it up) because they feel they’re unfair, we can let them know that we’re willing to listen to their concerns, and negotiate a middle ground. Trying to come to a compromise can not only help solve the problem, but show them that we’re willing to work with them if they’ll just be open and upfront about what’s bothering them. When being honest works in their favor, they’ll be a lot more inclined to make a habit of telling the truth.

Bottom line: lying is a natural and expected part of growing up, and nothing to stress too hard about. We don’t have juvenile delinquents, we have regular kids who are just learning how to problem-solve and trying not to disappoint us. We need to remind them that lying is unnecessary – that we still love them, even when they make mistakes.

But if that mistake includes skimping on oral hygiene, maybe it’s best to remind them from afar.