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Ever caught your child in a lie? I have.

My son would ALWAYS tell me the truth when he was younger – no matter what. As he has grown, telling the truth has been a bit more challenging for him. In middle school, he would lie at the drop of a hat. I would get so frustrated, and my reactions only made the situations even worse.

Now that he’s in high school, he still lies from time to time, but thankfully not as often. I am indeed beginning to understand something as a parent: Stopping a child from lying has more to do with my reaction to the lie than the actual lie itself. In fact, I’ve discovered a strategy that works.

Ready to hear it?

This strategy focuses more on the child than the lie they tell. When children lie, we have to focus on how lying triggers our reaction to the act of lying itself. Children with traumatic backgrounds often lie to survive, and all children lie because they’re afraid or stressed. But often, it really is more about our reaction or overreaction that ignites lies in children.

When your child lies, start by asking yourself three things:

  • Is there an unmet need?
  • Does my child have a fear?
  • Do I overreact?

Then, try these steps to help your child stop the cycle of lying:

  1. Once you hear your child lie, check your mindset and your reaction. Encourage and reassure your child that you love them. Be calm and walk away if you’re upset.
  2. Address the problem. Later, when your child is working on homework or watching TV, talk about how much it bothers you when he or she lies to you. Let them know that no matter what, you want them to feel safe enough to tell you the truth. It is essential for your child to trust you and understand that everything is going to be okay, so try not to overreact.
  3. Remember that discipline is about teaching, not punishing your child. This will help you create a positive and safe atmosphere for them, and provide security in the relationship.
  4. Think about your example. If your child hears or sees you telling lies, it will be easier for them to mimic what they see you do. Always be the example for your children in everything – they are watching!
  5. Build value in truth-telling and celebrate the successes of being honest by affirming their choices to tell the truth. Do not celebrate catching them in a lie (gotcha moments).

Remember, how you handle it when your child lies can either build up or tear down your relationship. If you want to stay connected, work to establish and maintain a safe environment and focus on changing the behavior in a positive way. Though you may not see results overnight, they will eventually learn to catch and redirect themselves.

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Does your kid lie and you don’t know what to do about it? Here’s a classic example. “You tell your parents that you’re spending the night at my house and I’ll tell my parents that I am spending the night at yours and then we both can go to the party.” Except the parents ran into each other at the store. You are so busted!

How do you handle lying in your family?

It drives me crazy when my kids lie to me. Then one day I really tried to look at things from their perspective and ask myself, “Why would they lie to me?”

Even little kids are smart enough to want to avoid consequences or even just letting their parents down. Put yourself in your kids’ shoes- they know that they are going to get in trouble for getting into the cookies, leaving a mess in the kitchen, or breaking whatever. So they choose what they perceive to be the easier path. So, my wife and I tried to make telling the truth the easier path.

When our kids were little, they knew that telling the truth, especially a hard truth, would directly impact their punishment. Sometimes the truth nullified the punishment altogether. “Thank you for telling me the truth about breaking the lamp. Remember, you were told not to horse around in the living room.” And that was it. “Thanks for telling me the truth about eating those cookies. You’re done with sweets for the night.” And we’re moving on. Reward the behavior that you want to get more of. Cultivating honesty in our kids was way more important than finding out who got into the cookies or made the mess in the kitchen or broke whatever. Pick your battles. Honesty is worth parenting toward.

So what about when they still choose to lie?

There was a definite flip-side to our approach to honesty. If we caught you lying, that was going to increase your punishment big time. You will be nuked from orbit. Now, it isn’t even about the cookies or the lamp anymore – it’s about the dishonesty.

We wanted to send a message that we know it can be hard to tell the truth and we will reward that difficult choice. We also wanted to send the message that lying was a relationship-destroyer and would have serious consequences. This definitely impacted our kids’ choices. It was not uncommon for our kids to take a minute (or an hour) and come back to us and say, “Okay, look, I lied about ______. This is what really happened…” Thank you! This didn’t mean that there were no consequences for whatever they did, but telling us the truth was always rewarded. Incentivize honesty!

We need to make sure that we are modeling honesty, too. More is caught than taught. Our kids are always watching and listening. Create a culture of honesty when your kids are younger and the stakes are smaller so that as they get older, they are in the habit of telling the truth.

With my older kids, I try not to ask questions that I don’t already know the answer to. They know this. So when I ask, “Hey, where were you last night?” What they hear is, “Ugh. Dad already knows probably.”

We have made telling the truth a family imperative. Lying shreds the fabric of trust in relationships. I tell my kids, “If I can’t trust you, your life is gonna be very dull.”

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Truth matters. Trusted news anchor Brian Williams shared an amazing story about being in a helicopter when it was shot down during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The only problem with the story? The crew on the helicopter that was shot down didn’t remember Williams being on their helicopter or the others flying in formation with it.

When Williams was confronted about his story, he ultimately admitted that he was not on that helicopter. His misstep cost him his coveted evening anchor seat, at least for a time.

Williams isn’t the only one who struggles to remember details accurately. Many employers are finding job applicants with embellished resumes – not necessarily a bold-faced lie, but stretching the truth for sure. Many students who feel the pressure of applying to colleges and needing to stand out in the crowd have found “creative” ways of describing their high school career and extracurricular activities.

Most parents know that dishonesty at any level creates an atmosphere of mistrust within relationships. That’s why among the character qualities they try to instill in their children, telling the truth is close to the top of the list. Yet those same parents are often dishonest in front of their children.

Some may remember the episode of Andy Griffith where Andy was trying to teach Opie the importance of being honest. Opie sold his bike to a friend, but failed to tell him all of the things that were wrong with the bike. Andy told Opie that he would have to tell his friend the truth about the bike. In the midst of the bike saga, Andy has the opportunity to sell his home. When the potential buyers came to look at the house, Opie began telling them all of the things that were wrong with the house. Andy got mad at Opie for telling the “house secrets.” Totally confused, Opie looked at his dad and said, “I thought you said it was important to tell the truth no matter what.”

Telling the truth is honoring to individuals and helps build healthy trusting relationships. But it is important not to stop there. Parents need to help children understand how to be honest in difficult situations and why honesty is the best policy.

Here are some helpful suggestions for parents to show their kids that truth matters:

  • Make sure your behavior is honest.
  • Share about a time when you were dishonest and the consequences of your actions.
  • Model honest expression that shows respect and compassion for the other person.
  • Start when your children are young teaching them the difference between honesty and dishonesty.
  • Look for teachable moments on television or in real life to show the consequences of not being honest.
  • Praise your children when they tell you the truth.
  • Teach your children about the benefits of doing the right thing and being trustworthy.
  • Model integrity, because you are your word. If people can’t trust you, you’ll miss out on many great opportunities in life.

Many will testify that it may take a really long time, but truth always reveals itself. Do you want to be a truthful or deceitful person?

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