It happens every day in every home. Your little darling sweetly tells Dad that Mom said it was OK if she has a cup of chocolate milk. Dad thinks about the huge piece of cake his daughter had after dinner and wonders if his angel could be lying.
One quick question to Mom confirms it. She is.
"At what point do we cut this off?" asks Aurora stay-at-home mom Suzi Ryan about kids lying. Her 3-year-old, Adeline, occasionally lies to get a cookie from daddy or about brushing her teeth when she hasn’t.
Adeline’s even changed her name—and that of her stuffed cat—and insisted on using her new name at a family reunion, leaving a slightly embarrassed mom to explain her behavior to older relatives.
Ryan’s desperation to solve the problem led her to post a query for help to a Web board for Chicago moms and to write about it at her blog, www.sclb.net. She was concerned that Adeline’s lying might not be normal.
Not to worry.
"Kids lie for different reasons at different ages," says Dr. Jan Remer-Osborn, coordinator of clinical programs in behavioral health services for Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. "It’s a very common behavior."
At age 3 or 4, kids begin to see the world around them is theirs to imagine, explore and yes, manipulate. Yet they don’t quite understand the consequences of a little lie here and there, nor do they really understand their exploration might anger someone.
"The youngest children don’t realize what they are doing," says Karen Gouze, director of training in psychology at Children’s Memorial Hospital and assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. "It’s hard for them to distinguish between reality and fantasy."
The most typical reason children lie at this age falls on wish fulfillment. For example, your son may tell strangers he has a little sister, but in fact he is an only child.
"It’s almost as if they are telling tall tales," Osborn says.
A developmental milestone that is still out of reach also keeps preschoolers from telling the truth.
"Impulse control is just bad at this age," Gouze says. "You can only expect so much honesty."
It isn’t too early to lay a foundation for honesty, though. Encourage the imagination, but don’t encourage the lie.
"If you play into their lies and act as if they are real, your kids might become confused," Osborn says.
By the age of 6, 7 or 8, kids know the difference between fantasy and reality. This is when they begin to purposely use lies to their advantage.
Being old enough to understand that consequences follow bad behavior, elementary kids may lie to keep themselves out of trouble.
"Most of it boils down to punishment avoidance," Osborn says.
Many kids at this age also lie to make themselves seem better in their peers’ eyes. Your son may claim that his uncle is Rex Grossman and that his dad has 50-yard-line season tickets for the Bears. It’s not true, but for a while, he might be more popular.
If you discover a lie, sit your child down and explain that lying is simply wrong. Lay out the consequences of a lie and follow through with punishment. Enforce that lying is bad, but emphasize that your child is still a good person.
"Make telling the truth a better option," says Osborn. "Have clear rules and reward honesty."
When tweens start to spread their wings, parents want to hold on tighter. For good reason, too, since kids at this age tend to lie more about their whereabouts and activities. Tweens want to control their own lives more than their younger counterparts and may try manipulation to achieve their goals.
"It’s developmentally normal for these kids to test their limits," says Gouze. "Parents need to spend some time talking about trustworthiness and keep the conversation going for the next six to seven years."
Kids also begin to engage in risky behaviors at this age, behaviors their parents probably would not approve. Ground rules should be established and discipline must be consistent.
But if your child continues to lie or the lies become related to more serious behaviors such as drugs, sex or unlawful behavior, parents must intervene.
"Occasionally it happens that some kids have repetitive and serious issues with lying. This is the time for a serious discussion and parents might want to seek out a therapist to resolve emotional issues," Osborn says.
Be role models
For the younger set, be sure to explain the difference between lying and using tact. Focus on making small omissions in the truth to protect people’s feelings, such as not mentioning Grandpa’s expanding tummy or mommy’s bad hair day. Little ones may not instinctively understand the difference between stating the obvious or ignoring it.
For all ages, knowing why your child lies helps parents cope with the situation.
To prevent lying, or at least reduce its incidence, parents must model honesty around their kids every day. For instance, don’t lie on the phone to your boss about being sick when you’re really heading to the Cubs game. Kids pick up on little lies like that and in their minds, it makes lying OK.
"Be consistent and keep promises," Osborn says. "What they see us do is much more significant than what we say to do."
Michelle Sussman is a mom of two, wife and writer in Bolingbrook. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Web site www.michellesussman.com.