DFWChild / Articles / Family Life / Behavior / Pants on Fire

Pants on Fire

Sarah Nicholson is married to an attorney, and Dad’s disposition seems to have transferred to their daughter. Once when they confronted Ellie, then 4, about breaking a rule, she engaged in verbal parries to protect herself – and keep from lying. “I don’t want to answer that,” she’d respond to her mother’s questions. “Let’s talk about something else.”

But Nicholson admits that the first time she did catch her daughter lying, she was taken aback. And just about every parent has that moment – realizing their child has somehow acquired the capacity to lie. The first time it happens, parents often don’t know what to make of it. But child psychologists assure that lying is a natural part of human development, and instead of freaking out, parents must learn to guide children toward truth telling.

Flower Mound family therapist Tiffany Smith says that for young children between the ages of 4 and 6, lying is about wanting to please and not displease parents. Children learn what makes parents happy and what upsets them early on, and they’re careful to protect parents’ emotions. When children don’t get a parent’s approval, it stings them.

Lisa Ferrell, Ph.D., director of clinical services at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth, notes that children don’t understand their emotions – they process with a child’s logic – so when you ask little Owen why he hit his sister, he can’t tell you that he’s filled with angst because his family pays more attention to Emma, so he might lie and say that Emma swiped a toy from him.

A typical reaction from parents is to question their parenting, wondering where they went wrong and how on earth did their kid learn to lie. Don’t fret; it’s innate.

Even a child less than a year old will look back to see if Mom is watching him reach for something he shouldn’t have, Ferrell says, and if she isn’t looking, he’ll go for it. No one taught him to do that. It’s a part of maturing, developing an individual identity and learning independence.

“One part of me knows lying is developmentally appropriate for kids and is very natural, but it was a strange thing to realize my sweet little girl could try to put one over on me,” Dallas mom Nicholson says.

In a ploy to sleep in Mom and Dad’s bed at night, my own son, then 3, went through a phase where he’d tell us about a dragon that was in his room biting him. The dragon, of course, would commence biting soon after he went to bed but while Mom and Dad were still awake. Smith recommends playing along with these kinds of tall tales. “Wow – how do we get rid of dragons?” we asked our son when he approached us with somber face. “What do dragons not like? Let’s pour water on him and see if that does the trick.”

The idea, Smith says, is to empower your child to solve the problem. With our son, we went through pretend motions of pouring water but gently reminded him that he was going to sleep in his own bed. That approach seemed to work.

Another tactic is to redirect lying behavior. But first, parents have to define lying for their children. Young kids simply don’t understand the difference between the truth and a lie. If you’re wearing a purple shirt, say to them, “I’m wearing a red shirt.” and use that to explain what’s true and what’s not true.

Mike McFarland, Ph.D., of McFarland Psychology in Dallas, cautions that punishing young children for lying usually isn’t effective.  It might even encourage them to increase the frequency and sophistication of lying as a means of avoiding punishment.  As an alternative, when parents perceive that their younger children are about to lie, they can redirect by making a statement such as, “It makes me really happy when you tell me the truth.”

As children get older and enter the teen years, effective parenting techniques such as the consistent use of rules with the option of negotiating exceptions can empower adolescents and encourage honesty.

And perhaps most important, parents should model truth telling themselves. Don’t ask your children to tell that pesky neighbor you’re not home when she calls. And if you tell white lies to protect someone else’s feelings, keep in mind that this is often what your children are doing when they lie to you.