An Un-noble Act with a Noble Goal
By Noha Abu Sitta
Truth and honesty have become rare elements in our world! From fairy tales, to media to everyday matters: lying has spread like an ugly virus that has inflicted almost all entities in our societies and even worse: In some places and with a few people, it has become expected and acceptable!
When children start lying to you, it hurts you as a parent as it makes you feel angry and worried that this is just a beginning of a future full of lies. However, what most parents don’t know is that lying in childhood is actually done with good intention! It is a convenient survival technique, which children happily discover for their self-preservation. Lying in childhood is a technique with the intention of escaping a negative consequence: be it a punishment (physical or psychological), or a negative emotion of disapproval and rejection.
Lying in childhood is not a moral issue!
A child who lies does not have questionable morals. Lying is simply a (wrong) choice for problem–solving. It is a defense technique driven by fear to survive a situation that will cause you more pain. Truthfulness and honesty are life skills that need to be acquired and learned, they shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Let’s Face It!
1- There is no child in the world who won’t try lying at some point in their life. For children, lying doesn’t hurt anyone compared to verbal or physical aggression for example! If we don’t deal with lying wisely, we’ll most probably encourage more lying in the future.
2- Adults lie too whether we admit it or not! We lie, by giving false facts, by omission, exaggeration, fake compliments or false promises! We, sometimes, even lie to ourselves about so many facts we know just to escape reality.
3- Lying is helplessness. When your child isn’t given another alternative tool, he’ll keep on lying.
4- Even if you as parents don’t lie, kids will learn about lying from media, their friends, other family members, or even from their fears.
5- Don’t label your child a liar. People live up to their labels. When you label your child a liar, you run the risk of your child submitting and living up to that label for the rest of his life.
When do kids lie?
At the very centre of the problem is “power”. When a child first comes in to this world, they realize they are not as powerful as adults. They can’t rationalize whatever happens to them in their lives as adults do. They can’t protect themselves from the world around them without the help of adults. They seek any possible way of controlling their power. A child would lie:
- To establish identity: to make him sound more impressive, admired or respected among his peers or other family members.
- To gain attention.
- To keep a secret.
- To avoid hurting other’s feelings.
- To avoid trouble: punishment, rejection or shame.
- To explore and experiment with the authoritarian figures’ responses and reactions.
Unfortunately, lying becomes plan A for many of us (not just children) when our experience in life teaches us that our mistakes are never accepted or forgiven. So we quit using plan A, which should be:
confrontation and taking responsibility for our actions, which builds people of integrity.
Lying by age
- Children can learn to lie as early as when they are only three. At this age lying is called fantasies. They also usually have an imaginary friend at this age.
- You can’t punish them for it or think of them as liars.
- As they grow older 4-6, they have more reasons to lie. They don’t want to disappoint you or any authority figure. They also want to avoid being punished or feeling rejected.
- When children reach school-age, they lie more often and more professionally so they start to learn how to get away with their lies.
- By eight, children can lie successfully without getting caught.
- Tweens and teenagers: Bullying, peer pressure and self-image are added to the equation so they start keeping secrets, omitting a few facts and glossing over details.
So what’s our role as parents to help our kids survive this “lying phase”?
- Acceptance is the key! Showing them that we accept them with their failures (not reject or condemn them!).
- We live in a powerful culture that exerts a lot of pressure on us to “fit in.” Filling your child’s emotional tank with love and acceptance, building self-esteem and confidence, and is an effective way to diminish lying. They rarely co-exist with lying!
- Think positive: Think out loud with your child about lessons learnt from each of their setbacks and how to avoid falling into the same problems in future. This way we encourage them to try more of plan A.
- When your child starts to lie, don’t rush into punishing him or calling him a liar! This will only make things worse and will most probably lead to more lying in the future. Seizethe opportunity to teach him something about life; this is when the training should begin! “Mistakes are opportunities to learn!”
- Lying brings with it a painful “sense of guilt and fear” so if we add to it physical or psychological or emotional punishment (pain), we are just adding more pain and ultimately killing this sense of guilt. So we are causing more damage than benefit!
- Dig for the reason behind your child’s lying. Lying is born out of fear. Check what your child is scared of. Deal with the root of the problem to cure the disease. Punishing him might temporarily cease the symptoms just like a pain-killer but will never cure the disease that is secretly growing more vicious.
- Foster communication: Make the connection with your child your first priority. Lovingly discuss with your child after you both have calmed down, not in the heat of the moment. Explain to your child why lying isn’t an effective way of solving problems because it adds more to it. If he is trying to hide a wrong deed by doing another wrong deed, this will only add on to the problem and might cause more pain and rejection from the society around him. Explain to your child how lying can damage his credibility and future relationships.
- Watch movies and read stories together that either teach honesty or show the bad side of lying. Tell him real stories about your life and how lying has put you in more trouble sometimes.
- Help your child avoid getting into situations where he feels he needs to lie. If you know he spilled the milk, don’t ask him “did you do that?”. Tell him instead: “Oh this must have been an accident, let’s clean it up together.”
- Know that lying is a learned yet changeable behavior, so it is not the end of the world! Don’t worry you still have time to fix it.
- Lead by example! Be a good role model Robert Fulghum says, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you. Worry that they are always watching you.”
- Praise your child whenever you catch him being honest! Tell him it makes you so happy when he chooses to tell the truth and that it requires a lot of courage. Usually it is much more difficult for us to catch our children while doing a good deed, unlike a wrong one!
- If all this doesn’t work and your child still lies chronically, then he might need professional help.
Noha Abu Sitta is a certified Health Coach for children up to 12 years old, by the Dr. William Sears Wellness Center. She is also a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator by Dr. Jane Nelson and Dr. Lynn Lott. Noha regularly conducts parenting, health and nutrition courses covering a variety of topics. She also makes regular appearances on TV programs to dispense her expert advice. Noha is available at City Clinic in Nada Compound, Sheikh Zayed for health and parenting coaching.