Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Do I Teach My Kids Not to Lie?

Every now and then I get clients who are very concerned about their child telling them lies. Many parents want to teach kids honesty and think if their child is starting to tell lies, that they are on the road toward a criminal lifestyle. However, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (2009) discuss the research on why kids tell lies, and what parents can do to better teach honesty in their book, NurtureShock. Bronson and Merryman (2009) detail their interviews and interaction with Victoria Talwar, PhD who specializes in the lying behavior of children. Dr. Talwar informs the reader and Bronson and Merryman that lying in children is considered a mark of intelligence. According to the research cited by Bronson and Merryman (2009) around 96% of children will lie. In home studies seem to point out that 4 years olds lie once every two hours and 6 year olds lie once every hour. That's quite a bit of lying. So why do kids lie? For the most part children lie due to one of the following reasons:

  • A coping mechanism to deal with frustration or to get attention from peers. 
  • A way to cover up real or perceived failures. 
  • To please a parent or caregiver.
  • Avoid a punishment.
  • They learn it from parents.
According to Talwar, Bronson, and Merryman, children younger than 5 are more likely to label a broken promise as a lie, even though there might be justifiable reasons for breaking the promise. Even telling your children, "Just kidding" could be interpreted as a lie. When children start to lie and develop higher moral reasoning skills, they are better able to account for extenuating circumstances. 

One classical way children learn that lying is okay is the parent asking the child to lie for them. For example and unwanted phone call occurs and the parent tells the child, "Tell them I'm (not home, in the shower, busy, etc.)." This behavior, and any form of it, teaches the child, "Lying is okay when I don't want to do something unpleasant." 

However, the biggest factor for lying was trying to please a parent. Children know that if they do something that upsets their parent, it will make their parent unhappy with them. In order to salvage their parent's feelings of happiness toward the child and possibly avoid getting punished, children lie. 

An interesting finding highlighted in this chapter was what helped increase honesty. Researchers read two different stories to two different groups of children; The Boy Who Cried Wolf and George Washington and the Cherry Tree. After reading these books to the children, they tested the children for their lying behaviors. The first group (Wolf) were found to lie just a little more than previously, whereas the second group (Washington) actually reduced their lying by between 50-75%. The authors believe that the difference between the stories created the change. In the Wolf story, the boy is punished and humiliated for his lie, in the Washington story, the boy (George Washington) is rewarded for his honesty, and receives immunity from punishment for the lie.

To test this assumption they had parents and researchers interact with children according to the George Washington story, granting immunity for telling the truth. However, this didn't decrease the lying behavior in children. What did reduce lying was immunity for honesty AND expressions of praise and authentic happiness from the parent toward the child for honesty. 

The take home message from this chapter in the great book NurtureShock, is if you want kids to tell the truth we need to value the truth: 
  • Be more honest as parents.
  • Don't put kids into situations where they are tempted to lie.
  • Praise honesty and grant immunity when kids do tell the truth.
  • Realize that on average most parents can only tell a child lies about 40% of the time, sometimes you will never know!

What have you found to be helpful to teach honesty? 
What will you use from this article to help with your child? 

Bronson, P. and Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock: new thinking about children. New York: Twelve.

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