What’s the deal with children lying ?
There has been some discussion in the papers recently about the notion that children lying can be a result of too strict parenting. This raises some interesting questions about the role of lying in childhood. How it comes about and what purpose it might have for the child who lies? If we go a little deeper it also raise questions about the purpose of punishments.
Lets start with the rather obvious issue that children lie to avoid having to suffer consequences of their actions. It is obvious that the more severely their infractions are dealt with the more they might be tempted to lie to avoid the punishment. The question that arises from this is why a parent might want to deal with childhood misdemeanors so severely. In other words what is the thinking behind it. There are two main drivers to my mind. One is that a parent may have been severely dealt with as a child and is merely repeating previous behaviour, the other is they aim to teach them a lesson they will never forget. The hope is that the next time they are tempted to repeat the misdemeanor they will remember the punishment and desist. This is understandable but misguided. Childhood is a series of learning experiences over a long period of time. A child is not going to learn much from an experience if their main feeling in response to it is fear rather than reflection. So my main argument against very strict parenting is simply that it doesn’t work. At best it fosters mindless obedience and at worst it is a breeding ground for seething resentment. Neither of these traits are ones we would want for our children.
Punishments (or consequences) are useful for one thing; they alleviate the child’s guilt nothing more. They do not teach them anything in the short term or the long term. It’s the dialogue surrounding the behaviour that makes the difference.
The more interesting question is why children lie in the under normal parenting regimes. The first thing to note is that it not a sign of impending delinquency nor of moral bankruptcy. Most children’s self esteem is quite fragile and sometimes their sense of self cannot take the truth hence the need to avoid it i.e. lie. In these instances lying might be an indication of low self-esteem or lack of confidence. In which case the last thing you need to be doing is making them feel worse.
The other major reason why children lie is because of developmental immaturity. A painful consequence of growing up is having to face up to a world where they cannot do what they want or have what they want. Lying can be a sign that the child is having difficulty managing ‘reality’. These situations need more parental thought and understanding than just straight punishments.
A final word about teenagers, most of them lie at some point or to put it more accurately their grasp of the ‘truth’ is somewhat elastic depending on what they do or don’t want to do. It will depend on whether they want you to know what they have been up to, whether they want you to know who they have been with? It is more driven by the developmental pressure to separate from you and have a private world than an abuse of trust. However if you are worried about your teenager lying it is better to focus on the potential for a breakdown of trust than resort to heavy handed punishments.