What to do when children lie?

‘My daughter thinks she is best at everything. I cant have her believing’

‘My son is always bragging- his friends come and ask me is this the truth.. it isn’t!!’

‘I didn’t hit her, she is lying!’ ‘No mom you saw that he hit me!’

‘Mom I promise I didn’t eat that chocolate, I don’t know how it got over.’



A lie can have many faces as apparent in statements I hear from parents all the time. The jury is unanimous- lies lead to no place good, but is calling on a lie the best parenting decision you can make?


As a parent while it is very important we help build our children’s value system- being honest being an essential one, it is extremely important we build their confidence and dignity.

I would go out in the limb to say that dignity trumps honesty.

When children create an alternate reality (I prefer this to the judgmental lie) they are essentially partaking in a fantasy. This fantasy can be a leap of creativity; it could be a protection they need from the reality, which is not feeling right, comfortable or safe. Does it not then become our responsibility to help them with tools to make that reality fit better, while protecting their need for an alternate reality. As they gap gets bridged, the alternate vanishes away without shame and judgment.


The lie can be about attention

There are stressful relationships around children all the time. Adults who are pressed for time, competition in the society that is coming down hard and early on children, and bullying in the classroom or playground.

Children respond to these situations by often creating magic and a story around their lives.

I remember two classmates at different times creating two magical realities for themselves. One insisted she had unicorns in her backyard and we had to go and find them. I remember finding used nail polish bottles and odd ends and thinking it was a magical space and believing that unicorns would show. Now ofcourse I realize we were probably stumbling into trash- but that’s the beauty of childhood, it isn’t bogged down by truth.


Another friend was experiencing turbulence in her home, her mother had remarried and there was a new half sibling. She created a story about having an uncle who was from an exotic country, and her actually being from there (we could not see it because she was given strong medications to fit in). This story as I see it today was her outlet, and she owned it!

Both these stories are from different ages in my childhood, and both the people in question are smart successful women today who live in adult realities and are not prone to unhealthy flights of fantasy.


As parents we need to be able to see the truth underneath the lie, and help the child with that truth. Is there a personal back-story that needs to be supported? Is there bullying which is chipping away at your child’s self confidence? Or is there a trigger closer to home- in us as parents where we are demanding too much out of our children? Are we resorting to consequence and is fear guiding the lie?


Protecting the magic

While we are searching for these answers, we need to first and foremost protect our child’s dignity.

That means not calling on the lie, and not taking away the magic. Sometimes the lie can be about- how do people see me and how do I want them to see me.

A great way to protect the magic of the lie but to scaffold it with a truth is to create an alternate reality as a magic bin where all the ‘what ifs’ can go.


My husband created a space called dreamland with my children. He would talk to them each night about going to dreamland and meeting them there when they fell asleep. Every morning when they woke up they would share stories if they went to dreamland, did they meet each other and what adventures they partook in. One day my daughter was spinning a tall tale in front of her friends. It was a tale about a holiday we did not take and about adventures that didn’t really happen. The children came to me and asked me, if this was the truth. In that moment I looked at my daughter and chose her dignity over my version of reality. I said ‘You have to ask her, if she said we went we did!’ Later when we were alone I brought up the trip and asked her ‘hey sweety, can you remind me about that trip? Was it a dreamland trip I didn’t come to or maybe forgot about?’


This created a second scaffold where she could protect the alternate reality in her magical world, and decide to deal with it when she was ready.


If we are willing to look at truth as a perspective and not an absolute we are able to allow more space for magic and the coexistance of alternate realities. We are able to give the freedom to our children to spin their tales, fly, and be able to come back without feeling like they cheated.


So lets ask ourselves as parents, do we have any other truth? Can we see the world as having no fake realities, just an out for perspectives. Do we have multiple truths in us, that all sit along side each other without being at war? Can we make room for more truths?


Can we hold that your truth is different from mine.


Celebrating everything

Alternate realities alongside being a magic space are also a response to toxic competitiveness that has gripped our society. From acadecs to extra-curriculars we are constantly fighting for the elusive first and our children are caught up in this race. Can we break this monopolistic cycle and create spaces for cooperative games where the team wins together. Some popular boardgames that allow for this are Busy Town and Pandemic. Here is a list of cooperative games for younger children and for older children


When playing competitive games, a fun way to celebrate other positions is to create a bag of chits. Each chit is a celebration. When a person wins, they pick a chit and get that celebration. When a person comes second they pick a chit and so on. This allows for all winnings to celebrate, and over time take away the pressure of coming first always, because hey who knows the 4th chit could be the one I wanted all along!


Realistic expectations

Another alternate reality is a cover for expectations that are too high. In hand in hand we do not expect children to be able to self regulate and hold limits. We expect parents to take control of limits to allow children space to offload their feelings and get used to acceptance of a limit.


My daughter didn’t want to eat dinner that was made. I apologetically told her I am sorry but you will have to eat this. She ran away from the table upset because I am such a mean mother. I was hungry so I first took care of my need to eat, and make sure my other daughter was fed. The wailing of my daughter grew louder and louder like an ambulance siren announcing its urgency. Fed I went to her and sat down next to her sobbing and crumpled self. I leaned close and said I was there for her and loved her. As her sobs wound down, I brought in the limit again, she had to eat dinner. Finally she admitted to having eaten a lot of chips and her tummy was hurting and she couldn’t eat anymore. We revisited the limit and I said ok, in that case today she could eat just a part of the meal, but next time we had to honour mealtimes.


This setting of limit, and revisiting the limit is how as parents we take responsibility and ownership of rules, and help our children navigate the rules. Sometimes it means we need to change them because of situations not in our control, and it is important we do that without resentment an anger. My eating of my dinner was key for me to be able to come to my daughter without being angry and hungry and be in a position to listen to her.


Walk the talk

Lastly or in all honestly this should be the first, what is our own relationship with lies? Did you lie or were you lied to as a child? Do you use lies to set limits with your children? These questions can lead us down painful stories, which in a Listening Partnership will help us shed the baggage of our lies and create a reality for ourselves and our children that is devoid of triggers.

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