Why your own kids lie to you and will keep lying (and whether or not you can do anything about it)...
What lying means
Have you ever seen your child do something and then lie about it five minutes later? It’s shocking at first. Then, perhaps, terrifying. “But I literally just saw her rip the petals off that flower! How can she tell me with a straight face that she didn’t?!”
Parents often want their kids to be successful and happy in life, and lying can seem like a slippery slope to non-success. “What if she keeps lying, then cheats in school, then gets older and steals, then…?” Lying is dangerous stuff, right? So how do you stop it? (and quick!)
Research has shown that kids will never stop lying under certain circumstances. The highest predictor of a child lying is the threat of punishment. So, if Susie knows she shouldn’t have plucked the purty purple petals of your petunias, she might lie to avoid the consequence. However, you know she is guilty! So you might question her again to “force the truth” out of her. In the end, you want to know that she knows that she did something wrong so she can learn to be good. So, when pressed, she decides to lie again. And again and again, in hopes of escaping the punishment. Indeed, there isn't a much more life-threatening punishment than disappointing your life-giving caregiver...
For kids, the possibility of no punishment will always be worth the gamble of another lie.
Truth Follows Safety
As her parent, you have to ask yourself a difficult question: Is it more important to talk about “the truth” or to “teach her a lesson” right now? If you want the truth, you’ll most likely have to skip the punishment to create safety. Once she truly knows there is no threat of punishment for her answer, she might tell the truth (because there’s no reason to lie any longer, assuming she believes your offer).
On the other hand, if you continue to expect her to tell the truth and to get punished, you’re in for a knock-down-drag-out between parental gumption and stubborn kid-logic. And that can get exhausting. Most parents also worry about not "punishing" their child for bad behavior in fear the child won't "learn a lesson." Often, the natural consequence of a child's actions are consequence enough to teach, especially if hearing the truth is your end goal.
Making space for the truth (and real learning)
If you want to help your child in the long run, choose safety (which allows for honesty). If your child has space to actually tell the truth and not get punished, she learns a few lessons:
Telling the truth is better (it can lead to less punishment—or maybe none)
I can talk to my parents about things and feel safe
I can learn through mistakes
Once your child knows she’s safe, she may be more open to a constructive conversation about why petunia petals fit best on the flowers, instead of on the floor. And, the next time she has the chance to lie or tell the truth, she might choose the latter.
At the end of the day, choosing relationship over outcomes creates real, long-lasting solutions.
Try it out! See what you think. See what your kid thinks. And then re-evaluate. Your kid needs something that fits her just right, and this may or may not be it. But it might be a step in a nice direction.
For more information, see NurtureShock by Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson.