When Should You Believe Your Kids?

All kids lie, experts say. It's part of growing up. But that doesn't make the issue of trust any easier for parents to navigate. BlurryMe/Shutterstock

As a kid, I remember the times when I was telling the truth and my folks didn't believe me. It felt like such an injustice to my indignant little mind. Now I'm a parent attempting to decipher truth from fiction in my own kids, and the view's a lot murkier from this side.

Take, for example, the story about a school librarian-turned-detective who proved a student's innocence and got her un-grounded at home.

A 12-year-old girl was writing an English paper in a Google doc at the school library. She forgot to close it and log out of the computer after she was done. Three boys discovered her work and added some very inappropriate content. Later that day when the girl sat down at home with her mother to work on the project, her mom found the vulgarities and punished her, not believing her when she insisted she was innocent. Long story short, the school librarian cross-checked the document's revision history with footage from security cameras in the library, and justice was served.

It's just one example, but it illustrates just how tricky the issue of trust is between parents and children.

Kids are liars

Pinocchio toy with big nose
Around age 2, children are capable of telling a small fib, and between ages 6 to 8, they become more sophisticated liars. luckyraccoon/Shutterstock

That may sound harsh, but it's true: All kids lie. It's part of a child’s normal development, starting around age 2 when they begin to say "no" and discover that their thinking is separate from their parents' thinking, according to education and literacy company Scholastic.

Even at age 4 or 5, those little fibs kids tell are likely not cause for concern, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). They lie because they enjoy making up stories and blurring the line between reality and fantasy. They also may lie to avoid a punishment or humiliation, or to get out of doing something they don't want to do, the AACAP says. Like many other things, kids learn how to lie from their parents, who teach them that little white lies are socially acceptable and necessary to spare people's feelings.

By age 6 or 8, children are more sophisticated in their lying skills. "Children can now understand something like, 'John wants his mother to think he feels bad about Grandma not coming to visit.' At this stage, it's not just the content of the lie, but the motive or attitude of the speaker that can be doubted, as well," Scholastic says. And by age 11, kids are darn good liars, though teachers and parents may not be as easily swayed by a cute face or a sad puppy-dog expression.

Walking a fine line

If your child is in that 6 to 11 age group, how do you know when you can believe your child and when you can’t? The mother in the Google document example above saw explicit text within her daughter's work, assumed it was hers and grounded her. Could she have looked at the revision history herself and saw that the rude additions were made while her daughter was riding the bus home? That would have been smart, but maybe she had 20 other things to do that evening and overreacted in haste and irritation. Many parents would have done the same thing.

Our reactions when kids lie are key, says Janet Lehman, MSW, a parent and veteran social worker who has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. "It’s easy to let half-truths slide by without saying anything because on the surface, these distortions of the truth can seem harmless. We minimize their importance, but in doing so, we also teach our kids that lying is an acceptable way to solve their problems. Or we overreact and take it personally, and start to believe that our children are somehow intrinsically flawed or untrustworthy. But both ways of approaching lying in children are ineffective," Lehman writes on her Empowering Parents blog.

She suggests taking a neutral, objective and non-intrusive approach if you're not sure your child is telling the truth:

You can say, “It seems like there’s something going on and I’m worried about you.” Deliver that concern in a matter of fact, caring way. If your child tries to avoid the discussion or has a reaction that makes you even more worried, this is a good indicator that you need to look into the situation further. Kids also need to know that you’re going to follow through, so you should say something like, “I’m pretty concerned about this situation. I don’t really know the details right now and you’re not willing to tell me, but I’m going to talk to your friend’s mother to find out more about it.” In this way, you’re not charging in there and accusing your child of something without all the details. Instead, you’re stating your concern and telling them that you’re going to find out more of the details.

Punishments that fit the crime

Parents punishing their son
You may feel angry or disappointed after catching your child in a lie, but if you address the issue with a neutral tone, it'll create an environment where your child feels safer telling the truth in the future. Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The first thing to do when you catch your child in a lie, according to multiple experts, is calm down if you're feeling angry or agitated. When you're calm, you'll communicate in that neutral, objective tone. And remember: Kids lie to avoid punishment, but they also lie to avoid your anger, Scholastic says.

The AACAP says parents of very young fibbers should have a serious talk with the child that covers three main points:

  • the difference between make-believe and reality
  • the importance of honesty at home and in the community
  • alternative solutions to problems other than lying

Scholastic suggests using the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," one of Aesop's Fables in which a boy falsely cries for help so many times that when he really does need it, no one comes.

For parents looking to punish those expert older fibbers, here are three tips:

1. Don't give lengthy lectures. They tend to make the child lie as a defense mechanism, says Leah Davies, M.Ed., an education consultant, teacher and author of the award-winning Kelly Bear series for parents and educators. Instead, "create a non-threatening environment where children feel safe to tell the truth... Never call a child a 'liar' because children have a tendency to live up to negative labels," Davies says.

2. Use consequences instead of punishments. Davies says kids who receive harsh punishments become skillful deceivers. Say, for example, your child trips another child at the park and then denies it even though witnesses saw him do it. Instead of screaming at him in front of his friends or grounding him for a few days, have him sit alone on a bench or take away his screen privileges for the weekend.

Better yet, use consequences that will develop your child's conscience, Scholastic says: "Consider a kindergartener who has discarded several notes sent home by the teacher requesting a meeting. His father hasn't received any notes, and is shocked when the teacher calls. His child denies any knowledge of the notes ... A logical short-term consequence might be to require the child to inform his teacher that he hasn't been giving the notes to his parents and that he is sorry. He can then ask for another note to bring home."

3. Praise a child for honesty. Scholastic and Davies both recommend this, even if the admission comes after telling a lie, as it will positively reinforce a child's confidence and make it easier for them to tell the truth next time.

Ultimately, the goal is to figure out what the child was trying to achieve with their lie. There is always a motive and meaning for what children tell us — and what they don't.