When someone lies to you, it’s a betrayal of trust that can lead to any number of emotions from sadness or anger to confusion. And when that someone lying is your child, well, feelings can get even more complicated. It’s only natural as a parent to wonder, “Didn’t I teach her right from wrong,” or “Doesn’t she realize I know she’s lying” but this isn’t a time to question the adequacy of your parenting skills. Rather, it’s time to assess the situation, set things straight, and figure out how to make this a teachable moment for your daughter.
Take a Deep Breath
First off, even if your family has a no tolerance policy for lying, remember, not all lies are created equal. Take a second to think about the real ramifications of the lie your girl told. Did she insist she hadn’t eaten any sweets before dinner, despite the fact that you could plainly see chocolate brownie stuck in her braces—or is this a more serious matter that compromised your child’s safety or that of others? Naturally, you don’t want your girl to think she can “get away” with lying, as honesty is one of the most important qualities a person can have (and lying can be a slippery slope), but you also don’t want to get overly upset over the smallest of infractions, when there are sure to be bigger issues to tackle down the road.
The Why is More Important than the Lie
“When your child lies, which is bound to happen sooner or later,” says Girl Scouts Developmental Psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “it’s actually a door-opener to a bigger conversation about the reasons why she didn’t tell you the truth in the first place. By understanding her motivation, you can actually find solutions to problems you might not have known your daughter was having.” Stay calm and ask her outright why she was dishonest with you, or why she felt that she couldn’t tell you what was really going on. Her answer may surprise you.
“If she’s been claiming to be at basketball practice after school, but you found out she didn’t make the team in the first place, there’s a chance she was worried you’d be disappointed in her for not measuring up. Or if she says she’s done her homework, but you find out she hasn’t been turning anything into the teacher, there’s a chance she’s not understanding the subject matter or needs a little extra tutoring in that area,” says Bastiani Archibald. Kids often lie to try to present themselves as more popular or more successful because they want to present an image of themselves that will make you happy, or because they don’t want to let you down. Sometimes kids lie without even knowing why—it just comes out. So try to be understanding and empathize with your child—you love her no matter what, and you can’t exactly support her through the hard stuff if she doesn’t tell you about it in the first place!
Allow Her to Negotiate
While some lies come from your child’s fear of disappointing you, others will likely come from the fact that she flat-out doesn’t agree with you on a certain subject, or that she feels a rule is unfair. In these cases, ask her to present her argument as to why things should be different and then really hear her out. “If you discover that she’s been wearing one thing in the morning when you drop her off for school, but then changing into something else you might not approve of once she’s there, talk to her about why she felt the need to go behind your back rather than talking to you about the problem directly,” says Bastiani Archibald. “The important thing is that you want her to feel comfortable approaching you even when you disagree. She won’t always get her way, but your daughter needs to know that she’ll be heard and that her opinions and feelings will be taken seriously.”
And remember to actually listen and consider what your girl is saying. As parents, we’re not always right about everything, and your daughter may have a solid argument. Changing your mind or giving your daughter a little bit of leeway when it makes sense isn’t a sign of weakness as a parent. Instead, it’s a signal to your daughter that while lying breeds distrust and hurt feelings, communicating calmly and standing up for what she believes in—even when you disagree—can lead to positive change. Sometimes even adults don’t have the fullest picture of the situation, or any way to understand things from her point of view unless she explains it. Hearing her out helps her see that you want to be flexible and think critically about things—and that she should, too. Plus, having these kinds of conversations with you will teach her strong conflict resolution skills that will help her have healthy friendships, relationships, and positive career interactions later in life.
Fess Up to Your Own Mistakes
If your child points out the fact that you’ve told lies here and there—maybe she heard you use a doctor’s appointment as an excuse not to go to an event you simply weren’t interested in—don’t deny it. “The best thing in a case like this is to acknowledge that sometimes even you do tell a little white lie here and there,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Let her know you’re working on this issue, too, because even with the best of intentions like not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, lying can mislead others, waste their time, or lead to even more confusion and hurt feelings down the line. You and she can work on speaking more directly together.”
Examine the Real Effects
After you get past the reason behind your daughter’s lie, you still need to make sure she understands that telling lies—even seemingly little ones—can erode trustworthiness, complicate relationships, and actually cause harm. Ask your girl what or who could have been hurt by her lie, or if she’s not old enough to draw those conclusions herself, walk her through the realities of how her actions might have affected others. Taking a look at the real effects of her lie (perhaps money that could have been saved or spent on something else was wasted, or someone’s feelings were hurt) will have a much bigger impact on her than simply telling her that “lying is wrong,” and punishing her for it.
“Make sure your girl knows that she can talk to you about anything,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Yes, you might get angry or feel disappointed in her actions if she’s done something you don’t agree with—but lying to you instead of fessing up certainly isn’t going to help anything. And if she’s disobeying your rules and then lying about it, emphasize that although you might not always budge or shift rules she disagrees with—there’s zero chance of you two coming to a compromise if she’s not communicating with you about how she feels.” And then? Let the punishment fit the crime. If your daughter’s lie hurt someone else, consider having her write a note of apology, explaining that she understands the way her words or actions affected others and that she’d like to fix things if possible. “Sending her to her room or taking away her phone may have a temporary impact,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “but getting to her to more specifically acknowledge what she did to herself and others and helping her understand the true ramifications of what she’s done will go a long way in raising an honest, trustworthy adult.”
These tips will help you get to the heart of the problem—and fix it, fast!
As your girl grows older, you'll likely have way bigger battles to face.