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Why kids lie, and 7 ways to get them to tell the truth

April 19, 2011 at 9:03 AM ET

Politicians do it. Athletes do it. Role models do it. And, of course, kids do it too -- lying. Their fledgling attempts at deception can be almost funny, but how do you nip lying in the bud? By creating a 'safe environment' for the truth, one expert says.

Amy McCready

By Amy McCready, TODAY Moms contributor and Positive Parenting Solutions founder

Consider the following scenario: you’re peacefully reading on the sofa when Buddy, the family dog, walks in to snuggle beside you. But when you absent-mindedly pat him on the head, something feels sticky, and it’s not a cold, wet nose. It’s ketchup. All over Buddy.

"Devon!" You yell in the general direction of your 6-year-old.

"What?" He shouts back, peeking into the room.

"Did you put ketchup on Buddy?" you demand, although there’s not much room for doubt. Buddy is a smart dog, but he can’t open ketchup bottles.

"No," Devon responds in his most innocent voice.

And now you’re facing the unfortunate problem of having caught Devon in a lie. And that’s the third time this week, despite your best attempts to let him know in no uncertain terms that lying is unacceptable. Why doesn’t he "get it?"

Lying is certainly a frustrating challenge for parents, but fortunately, it’s one we can fix with a few adjustments to our parenting style. Let’s take a look at why kids lie. By understanding where they’re coming from, you’ll start to see what you can do to get the truth in the future.

One of the most obvious reasons for lying is to avoid punishment or an unpleasant outcome. It’s hard for a child to be honest when she knows she may face physical punishment, humiliation or a good tongue-lashing. And can you blame her? Even as an adult, you may do the same when faced with an angry boss or nagging neighbor.

Another reason is to avoid losing favor in your eyes. The last thing kids want to do is disappoint their parents—they’d rather lie than have you think less of them for something they did (or didn’t do). And finally, kids always want a reaction, so they’ll tell outlandish stories to impress you or others.

Many parents come to me very concerned about their kids’ repeated lies. When I ask them how they respond to lies, they usually describe some form of swift and stern punishment. Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle: As kids are punished for lying, they’re less likely to tell the truth in the future. The punishment creates a result that’s exactly opposite from what we’re looking for.

But since lying really is a serious misbehavior, how can you address it without fueling the problem? Try looking at the problem another way: Instead of doling out punishment for every fib, we want to make sure to create a safe environment for the truth. Below are seven ways to do that.

7 Ways to Create a Safe Environment for the Truth

1. Be aware of how you respond to misbehavior in general. If your kids are worried about being punished or yelled at when they mess up, they won’t feel safe telling you the truth. Practice using your calm voice (although it can be hard at times!) and focus on solutions that will solve the problem instead of assigning blame.

2. Allow your child to save face. Don’t give your child the opportunity to fib by asking questions to which you already know the answer. For example, instead of asking, "Did you finish your homework?" try, "What are your plans for finishing your homework?" If your child hasn’t completed his homework, he can save face by focusing on a plan of action rather than inventing a story.

3. Focus on the feeling. When your child is being dishonest, try to understand what made him feel that he couldn’t be honest with you. Instead of calling him out about the lie, try, "That sounds like a bit of a story to me. You must have felt afraid to tell me the truth. Let’s talk about that." You’ll get the honesty you’re looking for, as well as information that may help you foster the truth in the future

4. Acknowledge and appreciate honesty. Express encouragement when your kids tell the truth. "That must have been difficult for you to tell me what really happened. I admire your courage for telling the truth. You are really growing up!"

5. Celebrate mistakes. Think of mistakes as a way to learn to make better choices in the future. If kids know that you won’t be angry or disappointed when they mess up, they’ll be more likely to share honestly. To respond, simply say something like, "That’s a great opportunity to learn for the future. If you could have a do-over, what would you do differently?" If your child’s actions negatively affected another person, ask what needs to be done to "make it right" with the injured party.

6. Reinforce unconditional love. Make sure your kids know that while you sometimes don’t like their behavior, there isn’t anything they could possibly do that would change your love for them.

7. Watch your white lies. Remember that young ears and eyes are always tuned in. Whether you’re failing to correct the barista who gives you too much change or making up a story about why you can’t volunteer at the school fundraiser, remember your actions set the example for acceptable behavior.

By following these guidelines, you’ll soon notice a sharp decline in the lies your kids tell. What’s more, you’re showing them that no matter the situation, everyone benefits from the truth.

Related TODAY book excerpt: 'Tangled Webs': How American society is drowning in lies

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two teenage boys. Online positive discipline training from Positive Parenting Solutions helps parents of toddlers to teens correct misbehavior without nagging, reminding or yelling. For free training resources, visit: www.PositiveParentingSolutions.com

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