Let’s be honest here: we teach children to lie. We all lie at different times, yet most parents tell children to never lie. Come on–Santa Claus, Elf On A Shelf, Mensch on a Bench? The most incredible one–egg hiding Easter Bunny? How about, “Do I look fat in these pants?” Spouses all over know that lying in the face of that question is de rigueur.
When does a child learn to know the difference between what is commonly referred to as “Little White Lies” and “Bad Lies?” There is a developmental component to the answer and one that may be of interest to parents of traumatized children. Typical children as young as 3 begin lying and by 5 are pretty facile at lying to get out of chores or punishment. Between 7 and 11 children start to understand the purpose of “white lies” to protect someones feelings, which actually shows the beginning of empathy and compassion.
Brain scans show that white lies do not light up the amygdala in the brain the way bad lies do. Further, the more one tells “bad lies” the less one feels concerned about the impact of those lies on relationships. This is key because it matters how you, as a parent, handle lying when you detect it.
What to do?
First, research is showing that children who are encouraged to tell white lies (prosocial lies) to protect the feelings of others are being supported to increase their empathy and compassion for other people’s feelings. Traumatized children often lack empathy for others because they are in survival brain much of the time. You can help your children understand “white lying” as a kindness and that sometimes lying is done to protect feelings. For example, Uncle Bud made stew just for you and you don’t like the taste of it. What is the right thing to do? When the next door neighbor gives you tube socks for your birthday, how are you supposed to respond even though you have a drawer full of white tube socks just like them? The more prosocial the lie the greater the child’s theory of mind and the higher the child’s sense of empathy and compassion for others.
“Bad lies” need to be handled in a completely different way in order to prevent your child’s brain from acclimating to “self gain” brain reactions that actually make “bad lying” habituated. First, be understanding when your child lies to you for self-gain or to get out of trouble. It sounds like this, “Cindy, I know you don’t like doing your chores, so I understand why you would say you did them when you really didn’t. You are not in trouble. Try again with the truth.” It takes serious parental self-control to respond in an empathic way to your child who lied for self gain. Still, your job is to be safe and to help your child move through developmental stages of lying. Yep, that is a thing.
Parenting Approach Matters
While logical, telling your child that they will get into twice as much trouble for doing something wrong and lying about it is not the best approach. Treat lying in the same way you would treat a child learning to walk. When your child pulls up on an end table to attempt to walk and falls over taking the lamp cord with them, you wouldn’t yell at the baby for attempting this developmental task. Instead you would encourage the attempt to walk and coach the baby for safety. The same is true for the developmental task of learning to tell the truth. First, encourage the child for trying to figure out how not to be in trouble, and then coach the child to have empathy for the relationship with you and how you feel when lied to. In this way, you are encouraging prosocial truth telling from the standpoint of empathy and compassion for the person being told the lie (e.g. you). Moral development comes later. The habit of lying starts early. Work to break the habit of lying and the moral development will show up much sooner.
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