When Your Children Lie to You


A girl came to MIA one night a few years ago and announced that she had been robbed on the way there.

A child reported that she had read an astounding number of books during a school reading program.

A boy insisted that his younger brother had got that deep cut on his finger from a pair of scissors.

What do these stories have in common? In these particular instances, the young people were lying.

Very few things frustrate parents more than having their children lie to them. This is partly because parents whose children lie often feel that they have “failed.” However, teaching children is a process, not an event. Parents are offered an initial eight-year period in which to begin to train their children, followed by additional years of training and learning. During those years, parents can teach their children how to begin to use their agency wisely. If the child has been properly taught, he begins to share the burden of responsibility for his actions.

Too often, parents condemn themselves unnecessarily. Progression in parenting requires patience, not premature self-judgments. It requires careful and prayerful teaching, followed by a good example. Understanding some factors associated with lying would help parents respond to a child’s untruths, half-truths, and exaggerations in a way that would assist the child in overcoming the lying habit. And, of course, knowing how to respond to lying should be accompanied with preventive actions: teaching your children not to lie in the first place.

Often a parent’s first impulse when he suspects a lie is to say, “I know you’re lying! Now tell me the truth!” The trouble with accusing a child of lying is that you’re practically inviting him to tell another lie. Why? Because if he’s lying to protect his image of himself, and a parent puts on more pressure, he’s going to protect himself even more—and the lie grows.

My wife and I faced this problem in a small way with one of our children in a school reading program. She was six at the time. We had been telling her how important and good it was to read. But she wasn’t reading. So, in order not to let us down, in order to keep us thinking well of her, she claimed she had read books she hadn’t read.

She brought us slips of paper to sign. “Have you been reading the books?” we asked.

“Yes.” But we hadn’t seen her reading at all—instead she had been playing or watching television. So we prodded.

“Really?” we asked.

“Well …” And it was obvious we were right.

At that moment we could have hit the roof and said, “Never lie to Mommy and Daddy again, do you understand?” We could have made the whole experience so unpleasant that next time she would have figured she’d just have to lie better so she wouldn’t get caught.

But we didn’t respond that way, because what was at stake was not just our child’s honesty, but also something else very basic: our relationship with her and her understanding of where the lie might lead her. We first needed to make sure that she realized it was safe to tell us the truth, that we’d love her as she was, that lying just wasn’t necessary.

There is a handbook of human relations in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 121. In verse 43 the Lord says that when we rebuke someone when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, we must be sure afterwards to show forth an increase of love [D&C 121:43]. In the case of lying, it’s sometimes a good idea to show forth the increase of love before, during, and after the rebuke. Children should always be secure in their parents’ love. Lies come from fear and anxiety. Before the child feels safe in letting go of the lie, he has to be sure he is loved and accepted and respected.

So with our child, when we knew she was lying, we didn’t recriminate. We stayed calm and reasonable and discussed it with her, saying things like, “Do you know why it’s important that you read? We’re willing to help you read. Are you willing? We are interested in having you learn to read well, but we are more interested in having you tell us truly the number of books you have read.” No confrontation; no battle.

It isn’t always so simple, however. In this case our child admitted she needed help, and the lying stopped. But sometimes we think our children are lying when in fact they are telling us the truth, and if we accuse them of lying they are going to conclude—perhaps correctly—that we don’t trust them.

Even more often, however, we run into the problem of not knowing whether our children are lying or not. In cases like that, it’s often difficult to know what to do. If you don’t have any evidence that your child is lying—just vague feelings that something isn’t quite right, that something is being hidden—then any accusations you might make will probably do more damage than good. Whether your child is lying or not, accusations or doubts will cause him to feel that you don’t believe what he says and may cause a breakdown in communication. One of the positive things you should do at that point is work to strengthen your relationship with your child. Making him feel loved, accepted, and respected by making communication easy and comfortable will go a long way toward helping the child overcome his fears and talk frankly with you.

An atmosphere of love and trust promotes openness much more than does one of hostile confrontation.

Remember that when and how you show love and approval can influence your child’s honesty. Do you only praise him for some remarkable achievement—top grade on a test, fastest runner in the seventh grade, two home runs in a game, reading four books in a month? Do you only show affection when he has had a problem—a bully beating up on him after school, an unkind remark from a teacher, an accident that bloodies a knee? If so, your child may come to believe that your love and approval are contingent on such unusual events. He may assume that you aren’t going to give him those warm emotional gifts unless he can tell you about great achievements or terrible misfortunes. And then what happens? When the real achievements and the real misfortunes don’t occur, your child is quite likely to tell you about achievements and misfortunes that never happened at all.

Instead, parents should look for chances to praise the child and show affection for ordinary things, like a made bed, quick obedience to a request, a moment of helpfulness, a cheerful attitude, even a simple smile—all the ordinary but good things that a child or teenager is likely to do in the course of a day. By praising the little everyday things of worth about your child, you help teach him that he doesn’t have to come up with spectacular achievements to get your attention.

But there are still times when you know perfectly well that your child is lying to you. And when the child (or teenager) is lying about something important, and he knows perfectly well that telling the truth will result in serious trouble, the truth isn’t going to come out quickly or easily.

This is particularly true of teenagers. Suppose things have been going wrong for some time, and you know, for example, that your child is smoking, and he denies it. What happens if you find the cigarettes and forcefully show him that you know? He may break down and confess under such pressure, but he’ll be humiliated; he’ll feel unworthy of love. If you get angry, if there’s a scene, the wall of distrust will rise higher between you. And once he concludes that you don’t think much of him anyway, he’ll wonder why he should stop lying. What’s the use?

Once again the key is in showing forth an increase of love—before as well as during and after any confrontation. Showing that you don’t esteem your child to be your enemy because of his lie is an important positive step in solving the problem. You have to help your child see that you are on his side, not against him. You have to change the adversary relationship that has grown up, that has given birth to the lie. You have to show him that you love him even though you disapprove of what he has done. If he were not afraid of your response, he would not feel so great a need to lie, though with something serious it might take him a while to work up the courage to be honest with you and with himself.

So you begin to lay a new setting. Go to your son or daughter and say, “Look, sometimes you are so afraid I won’t accept you that you think you have to lie, and that makes me feel bad. I wish you’d tell the truth.” It’s very important that you are honest about your own feelings. You have to be truthful with your children first. You might even say, “In the past you may have felt that I wouldn’t accept you, but that isn’t the way I feel. I love you and want to help you in any way I can.”

This kind of sharing is a reasonable discussion, not an argument. You might say, “I don’t know exactly what we are going to do to help you tell the truth, but I think you’d rather not be hiding things, and it would be more pleasant for all of us if we could be straightforward about our lives, if we could operate so that you didn’t feel you had to lie.”

Are you going to get instant results with this? I rarely see instant results. If lying has become a habit, it must have taken time for the relationship between you to get that distrustful, that loaded with anxiety. To build up trust again takes time. You may well be rebuffed the first time—and the second and third times, too. Keep trying. The important thing is to show the child that even though you disapprove of the lies, and the actions that led up to them—and even though you must let him accept the consequences—you still love him, you still approve of some of the things he does, you still want to have an open, honest relationship between the two of you.

And if you keep trying, and show your desire to trust the child and express your continuing love for him, then together, with constant and earnest prayers, you will slowly pull the barriers down again. The verse in section 121 promises that your confidence will wax strong in the presence of God if you let virtue garnish your thoughts unceasingly and if you’re full of charity toward all—especially a child who has disappointed you through lying.

The issue here is not to condone lying but to build a relationship with new understanding that will make lying unnecessary. After all, if the child doesn’t care what you think of him, why does he bother to lie? He does care, and that caring means that through your affirmation of love and your demonstration of kindness, you can restore what you may have temporarily lost.

What happens once the child who has had a habit of lying finally begins to overcome it? You don’t want him to regret telling you the truth—that would undo all your work! But you also don’t want him to think that as long as he tells the truth, you don’t care what else he does.

Parents in this situation seem to walk a tightrope. Too often parents who have just been told the truth will ask why questions: “Why did you take the candy bar?” “Why did you smoke?” “Why did you lie about it?”

How in the world can the child answer such questions? Either he’ll come up with some kind of rationalization, an excuse that will probably sound silly even to him, or he’ll answer, “I don’t know.” He probably doesn’t know. Don’t dwell on the past: help the child face the future.

But once your child has admitted the truth, place the responsibility squarely on him for what happens next, though of course you should stand with him as he shoulders the consequences of the lie—and of the misdeed. Usually a child’s willingness to admit a lie is in itself the first step toward taking responsibility for his actions.

An unwise next step could be to say, “Well, honey, what do you plan to do with that candy bar (pack of cigarettes, plagiarized term paper)?” Now, if you ask such an open question, you’d better be prepared to deal with the child’s answer. What will you do if he says, “I guess I’ll eat it (smoke them, turn it in)?”

Sometimes it is much safer to say, “Johnny, do you want to give this back to the man at the store all by yourself, or would you rather have Mommy and Daddy go with you?” Or, “Johnny, do you want to tell the teacher about this term paper at school tomorrow, or would you rather telephone him tonight?” Such alternatives and questions are offered kindly, but firmly.

Children who have lied need to know that even though facing up to their misdeeds can be painful, they will feel better—cleaner—afterward; and they will know that being truthful is right and good. They also need to know that their parents are supporting them in their repentance.

And when the incident is over, the child who has lied and repented needs to know that his parents trust him, now that he has told them the truth. Once a lie has been confessed, it is forgotten, and there is a new start. You don’t label a child a liar. If you as parents constantly ask, “Is that true? Are you fibbing?” he’ll get the idea pretty quickly that you think he is a liar, leading to more distrust.

Not all untruths are lies, either. When your child is obviously upset or unhappy and you ask, “Is something wrong?” and he answers, “No,” he isn’t really lying—he’s just insisting on his privacy. Maybe it’s a problem he wants to work out on his own. Maybe he just needs a little time before he shares it with you. The question of honesty shouldn’t enter the picture at all in such a case.

What can parents do to keep their children from lying in the first place?

The most important thing is to keep a close relationship with the child. Even if parents show honesty in their dealings with others, their example won’t do their child much good if he feels that his parents don’t like him or if he feels that his parents are distant, almost strangers.

On the other hand, even if the parent-child relationship is close, the child won’t be honest unless he realizes that honesty is what is expected of him. And he needs to know it’s expected because it’s right. He needs to see his parents being scrupulously honest. This means that parents need to show what honesty means by their own actions as well as by telling their children what they are doing and why.

Parents can also help a child understand the need for honesty by pointing out examples in books or in the neighborhood. You might share examples of honesty and its good results in stories from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the history of the Church, and, most important, from the lives of personal friends and relatives.

Parents can’t force their children to be honest. Honesty, like every other virtue, must come from within. It grows inside a child through teachings, experience, suffering consequences when necessary, and by example. But parents can give their children a constant opportunity to be honest by providing a family atmosphere built on honesty through a close, trusting relationship.

Above all, honesty needs to be seen as a process, not as an event. One lie from a child is not necessarily a sign that thirty more are about to follow. How parents respond to a lie, however, can help the child want to tell the truth in the future.

“The truth shall make you free,” the Savior said. (John 8:32.) When parents help their children see that the truth frees them of anxiety, of unneeded guilt, of having to hide things from the people they love, such parents will be well along the road to teaching their children to “walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.)

[photo] Photography by Jed Clark

Terrence D. Olson, second counselor in the Orem Thirty-first Ward bishopric, Orem Utah Sharon Stake, is coordinator of graduate programs in Family Life Education at Brigham Young University.