Truth, Lies, and Real Help

It's hard on us to be around children who lie. What, we wonder, can we count on? What can we trust? And what kind of amoral monsters are we raising? Telling them that lies are bad, or punishing them if we catch them out in one, may give us a momentary sense of righteousness and scare them off for a while. But it will rarely increase our overall confidence in them, or stop our children from lying.

If we can lay issues of sin, truth, morality, good and evil, and trustworthiness aside for a moment, it will be easier to start noticing why they are lying. Then we can focus on what's behind the lie rather than the lie itself. What is the goal of the lie? What does that indicate that the child needs? If we can figure that out, we're a long way toward finding a response that addresses the real issue.

Is the child lying to get our attention or play out a fantasy? Those motivations are probably the easiest to deal with. "You know what? I ate 542 hot dogs for dinner last night." "Wow!" I reply. "You must have been really hungry. I could only eat sixty-three." We both know that we're dealing in the realm of fantasy and imagination, and we can have a lot of fun upping the ante on each other.

Are they lying to try to feel better about themselves? "We have hundreds of toys in our house." "My Dad took me to Disneyland yesterday." I'm inclined, in these cases, to not engage at all with the relative truthfulness of the statements, and go instead for the feeling behind them. "Boy, what a special trip that would be! You have such a wonderful dad--and he has such a great daughter." The lie is their method of giving information about the issues in their lives and calling for help. A response that calls them bad for doing it would not only totally miss the point, but actually reinforce the problem as well.

Are they lying because they are scared or ashamed of the consequences of the truth? I have a vivid early childhood memory of being asked to go to the neighbors for something, and being paralyzed with fear at the front door. I stood there for a long time without being able to force myself to ring, then finally turned around and walked home. I was too ashamed to tell the truth so I said that nobody answered. Being reprimanded or punished for that lie would certainly have succeeded in making me feel bad--and scared to lie again--but I was already feeling bad and scared. What I could really have used then was a warm loving hug and an invitation to tell what that errand was like for me.

Are they lying to try to get away with something? I was interested to discover that one five year old routinely lied--with a very serious and sincere expression--when asked if he'd brushed his teeth before afternoon kindergarten. Once I'd figured this out, it was easy to handle. "I know you always lie about that, John," I'd say very matter-of-factly, "so you've got to do it now anyway." I wasn't saying he was bad. I was just getting clear about reality so we could move forward. After he'd seen that we'd gotten his number, the game of trying to get away with something lost its glamour and he soon gave it up.

If the attempt to get away with something indicates a deeper lack of trust or a desperate desire to keep a secret, then the solution may be harder to find, but I think the direction still holds true. The more we can address the roots of a lie rather than the lie itself, the more sure we can be or providing real help to our children.