Does your child tell lies?

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Will Winter, MD, FAAP

Recently, I received an email from a friend. With her permission I am it sharing here.

"My daughter's teacher asked to speak with me today at school regarding my daughter's lying. She's almost four and a half.

Is there any guidance out there on what is normal and more importantly, how to handle it? She's doing it to avoid blame (most of the time, less on the imaginative lying, i.e. a tiger came to our house yesterday for dinner). But, the teacher made me think that it's a really huge problem and mentioned getting the school social worker involved. I asked how prevalent it was, but, she didn't give me a straight answer.

Recently, we had to let go of our nanny for lying and stealing and the teacher made it seem like she picked up this bad behavior from the nanny. She said that it will take a long time to undo this and that I need to start earlier with my son (he's 2 years old and doesn't even say much). I'm not sure I agree with that either, but, I was just wondering if there's any guidance on this.

I lied all the time when I was a kid her age. So I don't know what's the norm and what is simply an issue."

The Truth About Lies
Lying is quite common. On the TV show, "House", the main character (with the same name) says, "Everybody lies." in almost every episode. Is he right? If lying were not so common, why would the children's story, Pinocchio, about a character that lies (with nose growth as a result) be so popular?

Here are some stats:
20% of 2 year olds lie
nearly 50% of 3 year olds lie
close to 90% of 4 year olds lie
the most deceitful age is 12 when almost all children lie.
By age 16, lying starts to decrease- just 70% lie.

These findings are based on a study of 1200 children, ages 2 to 16, by Dr. Kang Lee, director of Toronto University's Institute of Child Study.
Dr. Lee has asked me to welcome anyone with questions to visit the website for their group:

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a nice discussion about lying in children who are 6 and younger:

Why Lie?
Context is important. Children (people) are more likely to lie when they get positive reinforcement- being rewarded for doing so- or when they are successful in avoiding an unpleasant consequence.

When people get too comfortable telling lies it can be a problem if it means that they start lying to themselves.
In the case presented above, if the teacher feels like the child is lying a lot more than the average child in the class then there should be a consequence for the behavior that is meaningful for the child. Picking the appropriate consequence requires a discussion and is best done by including the child in the process.

The key to picking the consequence is to have it be just strong enough to work. For example, if "time-out" for 30 seconds works, do not give a second longer. Do not be punitive. Punitive consequences are mean and can make things worse.

One essential step prior to a consequence is using the moment of the discovered lie as an opportunity to talk and so, to educate about lying. This step is more important than the consequence alone. In fact, the child may respond well to this and the next step- the consequence- may not be necessary at all.

Like any undesirable behavior, with proper behavioral modification, lying can be minimized substantially. This means the behavior plan must be consistently carried out. It would be good if the plan could be followed both at home and at school.

Finally, like all behaviors, lying can be learned. It is possible that she picked it up from the nanny. However, keeping the data from Dr. Lee's study in mind, her lying is also very possibly unrelated to the nanny.

As for the 2 year old, it is unlikely that the nanny had any effect. However, growing up, the older sibling will have a substantial impact on the younger. It is a good idea to continue to observe the 4.5 year old's behavior, be an involved parent and, if necessary, have appropriate and fair consequences ready if and when lying does happen.

1 week later...
"I am having difficulty separating out punishment for the lie vs. punishment for what she might have done and the damage caused, for example, breaking a lamp. I try to remind her that "you get into more trouble if you lie". So far she seems to be Ok."

Weighing your response
As for teasing apart consequences for lying vs. consequences for the resulting damage, it is up to you to do what works. If despite your best efforts, the lying continues, to really reinforce the importance of not lying, even if there is significant damage done, is she admits it, there should be no consequence for it. As she gets a little older and has learned not to lie, consequences for damage done can be revisited.