Many parents who bust their kids’ little white lies aren't particularly compelled to re-enact the Spanish Inquisition. Yet they want to address the issue before their tykes get into the habit of fudging the truth. But it can be hard to find a happy medium when dealing with minor infractions. So what’s a parent to do?
After receiving stern orders that the vanity was off limits, 4-year-old Katrina Knapps got into her mommy’s makeup stash.
Fuchsia lacquer drip marks marred the countertop and drawer handles — the product of a self-manicure gone awry. And Katrina’s chin and cheeks ... and hands and sleeves ... were smeared with lipstick streaks because of amateur application. But she vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“Despite all of the evidence stacked up against her, she bitterly maintained her innocence,” said her laughing mom Susan Knapps, a Lombard, Ill., resident. “I didn’t really know what to do with the situation. I felt like I was Geppetto and Kat was Pinocchio and I needed to sit her down to teach her the moral of the story.”
Like many parents busting their kids’ little white lies, Knapps wasn’t compelled to re-enact the Spanish Inquisition, yet she wanted to address the issue before Katrina got into the habit of fudging the truth. But it can be hard to find a happy medium when dealing with minor infractions. So what’s a parent to do?
“Fibbing is part of growing up. You start seeing it a lot around age 3, 4, 5 — because children know they have done something wrong, don’t want to get in trouble and are old enough to attempt to spin the story,” said Dr. Elaine Moor, clinical psychologist and dean of students at MacNeal School in Westchester, Ill. “They’re in the early stages of moral development, and as long as it doesn’t escalate to the pathological end of the continuum, these lesser crimes are easier to handle as they crop up and shouldn’t cause much concern.”
Childhood perjury usually surfaces when you confront a kid and demand an admission of guilt, she added.
“There’s no malicious intent — the child isn’t trying to damage the relationship by betraying your trust,” Moor said. “They just have this sense of not wanting to cause anyone to be upset with them. They’re trying to get out of something and, not knowing what to do, they displace the blame.”
Mindy Loughead, a mother of four in Darien, Ill., has seen this transparent, immaturely calculated move many times before.
“They have a reflexive reaction to the hand-in-the-cookie-jar scenario,” she said. “If you’re yelling, ‘Did you do that?’ and your child feels pushed up against a wall, they’re tempted to do anything they can to hang on to their dignity and not get berated.”
To avoid this quandary, Loughead said she tries to be less accusatory, framing questions without putting her children on the spot. “Whoa, what happened here?” or “Tell me what’s going on,” are her favorite approaches. This is an easier and less threatening way to coax the truth — and often a motive — out of a young one, Loughead said. Then the pressure of parental sleuthing is off, and the family can solve the root problem behind why your 6-year-old tore the pages out of your toddler’s favorite storybook.
The subtler interrogation technique is just what Dr. Rick Alford, a clinical psychologist at Salt Creek Therapy Center in Hinsdale, Ill., and Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, recommends for parents. That way, the child isn’t essentially prompted to construct a lie.
Another trick of the trade is to say, “Are you sure you’re telling me the truth? Give yourself a couple of minutes to think about it and let me know,” Moor said. That way, younger tykes can take the mental and even physical space to process their thoughts more fully rather than get trapped in an impulsive, fabricated excuse that snowballs into more lies.
Whatever the methodology, it’s also important to refrain from resorting to invoking arguments, witnesses, and exhibits A, B and C, which give the power struggle an unintended legal bent, Moor added.
“It can’t be a long, arduous process because that just confuses the matter,” she said. “The exchange should not resemble a courtroom proceeding with someone on trial. You need to maintain your authority and act more swiftly.”
Doug Johnson, superintendent of the Kane County (Ill.) Regional Office of Education, agreed.
“If you explain how you figured out their culpability — referencing evidence or identifying a tattletale — the underlying message is not that it was wrong to lie but that ‘You should have covered your tracks more thoroughly,’” he said. “Then your lesson gets derailed. You’re undermining the focus on truth-telling.”
It’s also a good idea for you to choose your battles, which requires an assessment of a fib’s content, Moor said. Rather than freaking out about whether your son did, in fact, take off his shoes before going into the living room, as he claimed, it’s more appropriate to get upset about him carelessly knocking over the iron or crossing a busy street without supervision.
“If it’s anything having to do with safety or violating the rights of other people or their property, that’s going to take a higher priority than ‘Did you really turn off your light?’” Moor said. “You have to make your response proportional to the seriousness of the wrongdoing so that your child understands the gravity of the situation and doesn’t assume you’re going to fly off the handle about everything. Because if that’s the impression you leave, they have no indicator for which house rules are absolutely unbreakable.”
Here, the lying takes a backseat to getting through to your child about correcting dangerous behavior, like touching an outlet with wet hands. But for the more garden-variety instances where kids disobey you and try to cover up their mistake, you can’t let it fly frequently enough that the they believe they’re slick enough to get away with breaking rules without having to face the music.
Training kids at an early age to tell the truth helps prevent lying turning into a habitual coping mechanism.
“You don’t want it to turn into a character flaw where that becomes their way of getting along in life when internal discomfort arises,” Moor said. “You want to instill the value of honesty and willingness to come clean and own up when the time calls for it.
“If a kid voluntarily says, ‘Yes, I did or said something I shouldn’t have. I’ll try to do better next time,’ what more can you ask for?” she added. “You have to give them credit and positive reinforcement for that kind of integrity.”
It’s a good idea for you to have that discussion in a calm setting without the impetus having been a recent confrontation over a lie, Johnson said. Children’s literature can be a great supplement since it’s often hard to explain abstract concepts to young kids without tangible examples. This can be anything from the Berenstain Bears series to the tale of the boy who cried wolf.
“That way, children won’t feel like they’re in the thick of it but can experience a sort of simulated problem and can have time to think about right and wrong,” Johnson said.
And the more you can “catch” your child handling things maturely and praising them, the better, Johnson said.
“Maybe your daughter broke a vase and came to you about it. Tell her, ‘Well, thank you. I know you might have wanted to hide the pieces or throw them in the garbage. But you’re a good girl for coming forward, and I’m glad I didn’t have to discover it on my own,’” he added. “‘Don’t you feel better now that you don’t have to worry about getting caught? Wasn’t that a bad feeling with that knot in your tummy?’”
But perhaps the most effective way to raise mini-Abe Lincolns is to lead by example, said Loughead, who tries hard to be a role model for her kids.
“I don’t say, ‘If so-and-so calls and you pick up the phone, tell them Mommy is at the store,’ so I can avoid someone’s call,” she said. “Because it’s a slippery slope. How can I yell at them for making something up and turn around and ask them to lie on my behalf?”
Something as innocuous as convincing the box office that your 13-year-old son is 12 in order to get a cheaper movie ticket can frustrate your efforts at indoctrinating honesty, Alford said.
And as your child hits adolescence, previous groundwork laid for an open parent-child relationship becomes more crucial.
“You have to set a precedent with your kids and be able to trade ongoing communication so that when they are hanging out with friends you don’t know and driving away in their own cars, they know there’s an open-door policy with you,” Johnson said.
If there’s a history of deceit and you’ve addressed past situations with angry screaming, they aren’t going to come to you to admit a mistake and seek your help. It’s just going to be lies, lies, lies, lies.
“Having expectations and parameters set up when they’re younger makes it less likely that you’re combating honesty issues during the years that really count,” Johnson added.