2 COMMON MISTAKES PARENTS MAKE ABOUT LYING.
Ever discovered your young child lying? How did it feel? Frustrating? Disappointing?
Have you noticed yourself going into a lecture or reprimanding them for lying?
Honesty and Leadership are two BIG values in our family. I made up a special story to share with my daughter when she was two years old. KIDS LEARN THROUGH PLAY: stories are amazing tools to implement when coaching your kids about certain concepts and life skills. I'll be publishing the story, turned-book, on Amazon in the next year; it is about a wizard and a sneaky, slimy, slithering snake (no offense to snake lovers…) who lied to friends, family and teachers. We even played and took turns pretending to be the snake and the wizard who captures the snake for lying. The wizard coaches the snake to understand that lying causes our heart and mind to be trapped like living in a cage… (Buy the book next year and you’ll understand it better 😉)
So, the value of honesty and telling the truth has been part of my child’s life for some time now.
But then she started lying. At first, I noticed myself getting really worked up and even reprimanding her for her lies reiterating reminders about the wizard and snake story as a reference. Sometimes she lied to avoid my disappointment – like saying she cleaned her tongue after brushing, but not really having done it. Other times she shared grandiose "recollections" of what happened at school or summer camp or even in our home when I wasn't around.
But then I noticed something, and this question came to my mind:
Is this really “Lying” or is it “Imaginative Play?”
2 COMMON MISTAKES PARENTS SOMETIMES MAKE ABOUT LYING:
Mistaking “imaginative play” as lying and shutting down a child; this could sound like: “That’s not true. You know it’s not. That didn’t really happen. Stop lying.”
Assuming the child is willfully doing it and therefore criticizing the child for their negative behavior.
These two common mistakes can create disconnection between parent and child.
Kids Lie for Many reasons:
- To avoid a punishment.
- To get more of something they want or avoid something they don't want (like a chore...)
- To attain approval.
- To work through difficult emotions and circumstances
- To fantasize / imagine things.
Let’s discuss the last two first:
My daughter has some intense fears about flying and crawling bugs. She uses imaginative stories that she says are “true” to work through her emotions. She has told me how at school or at summer camp she let a ladybug crawl up her leg and rest on her hand – and similar “incidents” involving spiders and dragonflies etc. She attempts to “bring her brave” through imaginative stories like this saying she swatted away a wasp with her hand and wasn’t even scared.
My initial response as a parent was to want to stop the lie. But thankfully, having learned what I have about the power of play and how children will use “stories” like this to navigate certain fears and life situations, and I decided not to. (Check out the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen.)
What did I do instead?
I acknowledged it. I did not promote or approve but offered her a simple acknowledgment. It sounds like this:
“I hear you.”
Why did I do this?
Reason #1: Because this is how kids process the world – through play! Next you might ask, “Did you talk about it after and tell her not to lie?” No. Instead of connecting her imaginative play stories to the idea of lying, I instead, throughout our daily lives together continue to instill and talk about the values of honesty, integrity and leadership.
Reason #2: If I’m willing to listen to her working through her big emotions now (albeit through an imaginative story), she’ll feel safe enough to come to me as a teenager with her stories of life challenges and obstacles that are real and true. She’ll feel safe enough to share her authentic feelings with me and know that her mom won’t invalidate or bypass her.
Does this mean I encourage lying? No. It means, I offer parents the chance to see a healing modality of play. Yes it's true, older kids (and adults) will lie sometimes to get what they want... But that's where we get to become really good guessers as parents! (A tough gig I know...) And it's important to remember that underneath the negative behavior is some kind of need the child is trying to get met. We need to know the difference of how and when lying might actually be hurting someone or not, and continue building on the values of truth and honesty as a family --- out of the moment. "Out of the moment" means we are not addressing this kind of story-making as soon as the child shares it with us. We address it later.
In terms of "lying" in fantasizing or imagining things:
My daughter is growing her ability to see that other people think differently than she does. This is an interesting and challenging time too. ("Why the heck doesn't everyone just agree with me?" - right?) When telling me imaginative stories that are “ really true mom - that really happened” wanting me to believe her, is showing that she can discern cognitively that other people can believe different things than she does. This is an important cognitive milestone – to see others as having different thoughts and beliefs. She is attempting to invite me to believe that what she thinks and believes has validity.
If I invalidate my daughter in the moment, it can cause her to experience confusion, dismissiveness, and result in unmet needs around being heard and seen. Yes, it's likely that Unicorns don't live in the clouds and one day will bring us lots of love and joy on earth... But, her imagination is growing. Fantasizing is something we all do (admit it), and it helps us feel things and experience things that seem out of reach in reality in current time and space. But this ability to "dream big" is important for kids to stretch their imaginative world and eventually apply it as a real-life skill later in life when it comes to goal-setting and visioning.
I have heard parents tell their kids the "truth" like "That's never going to happen," or "That's not possible." This can feel dismissive. The child brain doesn't have the logical or rational reasoning brain of an adult to cognitively say to their parent "Hey, I'm engaging in imaginative play. Please don't dismiss me." And thus, for parents it becomes imperative that we really tune in to our kids.
If a parent is able to join in the imaginative play, it could sound like "Oh, really?! Then what do the Unicorns eat up there? How do they sleep?..." and so on. Now my skeptics be like - well isn't that setting them up for disappointment? Here's where I would ask "Well isn't that setting them up to see the negatives and what is not possible instead of focusing on opportunities and potential?" Yes, one day your eight year old might feel distraught to learn that the unicorns she imagined at age 5 are not real, and we get to weather that emotional storm with our child, but I would hope to inspire confidence in you that her parent didn't shut down her play and her ability to dream - instead you joined in the play. Subconsciously this child learns her parent is to be trusted with her goals and dreams, and will be supported.
When looking at how children lie to avoid punishment, get more of something, or attain approval – this is more complex. But let’s take a quick simple look at it for now:
If a child is regularly punished for “negative behavior,” such as “lying” it can exacerbate fear of punishment and cause more lying behaviors.
Instead, we can get curious. It might sound like this:
“Hmm. I hear you saying you didn’t take your sister’s toy. I’m curious, how did you get this toy then?” (P.S. Tone of voice and body language matter – I could do a whole masterclass on this….)
When looking at how children lie to gain approval, it’s because children so very much want the approval of their closest and important adults and peers. This is wired into us (the need to belong) due to evolution. The social and interrelation approval we get can release “dopamine” (the reward hormone). So we may lie to get more approval because we like the way we feel when the dopamine releases in our body. So as parents, firstly we can become more mindful of how and when we deliver approval and whether or not it’s effective. I help coach parents on how to discern this. When children start to depend excessively on external approval and validation, it can create self-esteem challenges later in life.
When looking at how children lie to get more of something, I invite parents to normalize this. It’s developmentally normal for children to want more of the things they like. This is important for us to note. If a child is sneaking chocolate, we might say “You really like chocolate don’t you? Me too. And we’ll have another piece tomorrow.” And then I invite parents to use play and stories to discuss family values like integrity in their daily lives on a regular basis. Asking parents to normalize doesn’t mean we approve of it. Acceptance and approval are different in my books: we can accept something even though we don't like it very much. It's us, the adult, understanding that their brain is “under-construction” until age 25 or so, and this experimental lying is actually a cognitive milestone. AND, it’s okay to draw boundaries based on family values around this. The challenge is whether or not as parents, we can weather the “emotional storm” when it comes from the child when we draw the boundaries… For example drawing the boundary around the chocolate can cause a meltdown. Big emotions can cause us parents to feel uncomfortable and trigger us causing all kinds of reactions. We might feel guilty, we might feel like succumbing and thinking it's no big deal or go to other extreme and getting rid of all the chocolate in the house. These triggers have roots, and I help parents navigate their triggers and their child's storm.
To summarize, lying isn't only about the lying behavior itself - there is something else going on underneath that is usually at play.
Want more on this? Ready to lean on a Master Certified Parent Coach for support? I invite you to reach out. Check out: https://www.ashleyanjlienkumar.net/parent-coaching
Ashley Anjlien Kumar
The Confidence Coach