Why I Let My Kids Lie
by Lisa Miller
In my work with families, I regularly encourage other parents to accept the fact that children lie. It's unavoidable, I tell them. The books on child development, the parenting magazines and blogs—they all confirm it’s developmentally appropriate for children to lie at various junctures in their lives. There’s a continuum of age-appropriate lying. Adolescents try on lying behavior like they experiment with different hair color, piercings, and fashion.
Therefore, as my own kids aged, I knew there would be lying. My teenage self lied to my parents on the daily, so I assumed my karmic retribution would be that my teens would lie to me.
What I didn’t count on was how hurt and betrayed I would feel the first time my sweet child looked me in the eyes, and in the sincerest tone, told me a blatant lie. Ouch.
I also didn’t anticipate how distrustful it would make me feel and how crazed I would become, especially as they entered adolescence; that I would spend their middle school years and a good portion of their high school years trying to catch them in lies. Their lying and my sleuthing eroded our relationship in ways I didn’t anticipate and would come to regret.
Once I realized my kids were lying to me on a fairly regular basis —
Yes, I walked the dog;
Yes, I did my homework;
No, I wasn’t vaping;
My friends were smoking weed, but I wasn’t.
— I devoted an unhealthy amount of energy to “catching” them in the act. Since I was such an accomplished liar in my youth, I knew all the tricks —
Strategically place leash by the front door;
Explain in an exasperated tone that the teacher hasn’t updated the grade book yet;
Explain in an indignant tone, That’s not mine, my friend with really mean/strict parents asked me to hold it for her;
Visine, clean shirt, hairspray, and breath mints.
— and on and on.
Thus, I was pretty good at catching my own lying progeny (and let’s be honest, at first, they were clumsy, novice liars).
Initially, when I would call them out, exclaiming triumphantly in my head, Aha! I caught you!, on the lie du jour (or du moment), they would react with regret. Sometimes they would cry (this softened me as well as the consequences). Later, when my discoveries became a familiar refrain, they would become defensive and/or indignant, denying any wrongdoing. Sometimes, they were belligerent. Always, it was unpleasant.
I confess, I was so outraged by and focused on the breach of contract—I tell the truth, you tell the truth, we all tell the truth—that I didn’t realize the impact this dynamic was having on my kids. Every time I caught them in a lie, though their reaction varied, the underlying emotion was consistent: shame. Shame they had lied and shame they'd been caught. It was this shame that caused them to become better, more skillful liars, so as to avoid the confrontation with me. The more I busted them, the more they dreaded being busted, and the more they lied. My outing of them had the opposite effect of what I had hoped. Sadly, they didn't have an epiphany that lying was hurtful and toxic to relationships. Why? Because they were still figuring it out, trying it on, sizing up the look.
Nowadays, I’m not actually sure when my kids are lying to me; they are so adept. I feel sad that I’ve contributed to this state of affairs, but hopeful they’ll outgrow it as I eventually did. I am happy to report that I rarely lie as an adult and my relationship with my parents recovered from all the lying I did as a teen. In fact, my own parents brush it off as a brief pit stop on my developmental road to adulthood. How wise they are!
To be clear, I still spy on my kids. But instead of busting them, I try to find ways to start conversations about things they might be struggling with, and to ask questions (and try really hard to not appear alarmed when I find out what they’re up to).
What it boils down to is this: Sometimes kids need to lie and figure out on their own why it's not okay, and in order for them to do this developmental work, some lies are better left undiscovered.
To summarize what I’ve learned about lying, my kids, and myself:
Keep your perspective; for most kids, lying is a phase they grow out of.
Talk to your kids about your values around honesty and integrity.
Practice what you preach; don’t lie*.
Create a safe space, or confessional, where they can come clean without incurring consequences (my kids and I do it in front of our house, in our parked car, and it's called "reveal time").
Let some lies go undiscovered; kids will (eventually) realize on their own the damage lying does to a relationship and stop doing it. Check out this short video on how to navigate the situation without calling out the lie.
Acknowledge and appreciate honesty and integrity in your kids. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth.
Devote too much energy trying to catch them in the act of lying.
Shame them by overreacting when they do; simply tell them it's hurtful to your relationship when they lie, and you care about your relationship, so please don't do it.
Set them up to lie by setting unrealistic rules/expectations.
Yell, berate, moralize, lecture (this last one is hard).
Tell them I told you so when their friends/peers lie to them and it's hurtful.
Act like this phase defines them forever and they have no moral compass for life (although it seems that way).
Be too hard on yourself. We’re all just doing the best we can and sometimes we blow it (see my blog on apologizing to your kids).
*I’m not talking about the white lies we sometimes spew (like when you tell your aunt that her inedible casserole was delicious); I’m talking about the bold-faced, repetitive lies that mask unhealthy or dangerous behavior.