This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Smart Parenting magazine Carolyn Domingo* was shocked when she received a text message reminding her that she had reached her share-a-load credit limit. “How can that be? I don’t even know how to do that!” she exclaimed. An even bigger shocker: Her service provider traced the load’s recipient to her 12-year-old daughter’s cell number. The girl initially denied sending herself a P500-worth load using her mom’s phone, but later owned up and promised not to do it again.
Just like Carolyn, many parents wonder what’s going on when they catch their children making a bald-faced lie. Erika Lopez was dismayed when she found “No Assignment!” marks peppering the books of her third-grade son. Whenever she had asked, her son always assured her that he had done his homework.
Though it is worrisome, experts assure us that lying in children is not unusual and is often part of their development. It may be part of wishful thinking, or of the urge to test boundaries, please the parents, escape punishment, even exercise the power of language. Thus, parents must know how to deal with these naughty experiments and raise honest children.
Why do they lie? The child’s age can yield clues as to why he fibs. For toddlers, the line between fantasy and reality is still blurry, so they do not really lie as we understand it, says Lisa J. Redoble, assistant professor of the Department of Family Life and Child Development at the College of Home Economics, University of the Philippines in Diliman. “When they say, ‘I saw a snake under my bed,’ they are fantasizing. They are using their imagination. So wala pa talagang lying diyan,” adds Redoble.
Between four and six, kids can already distinguish a truth from a lie but that will not deter them. For these preschoolers, an overactive imagination and wishful thinking may lead them to tell tall tales. Tet Mendoza recalls a time when her four-year-old son took home a battery-operated robot, claiming that his playmate gave it to him. Of course, the “donor” was soon at their doorstep bawling for his toy. There’s also the fear of punishment as well as the desire to please their parents, teachers or other authority figures.
“Pag nakikita nila na nakakalusot, then they would now try to do some lying for status itself,” says Redoble. Among the four- to six-year-olds, peer pressure can be quite strong so making up stories is a way to gain status or respect. For instance, a five-year-old may boast that her mom is buying her a Barbie doll soon so she will be accepted into a group whose members all own this doll.
As the child grows older, his reasons for lying also grow more complex. The grade-school kid may do so to get what he wants, escape an unpleasant task or avoid punishment. Lydia Estrella relates how she ordered her 10-year-old boy to put down his new Game Boy and go to sleep. The boy replied, “Yes, Mommy.” When she peeked into his room a few minutes later, there he was still clicking away in bed.
For adolescents, resorting to lies can be tied to the desire to experiment and discover things for themselves. “Even the parents have gone through this stage in which we tried things na bawal,” says Redoble. It can also be a way to protect their privacy and feel in control, so that they may resort to lying in order to avoid being “pestered” with questions.
Battling lies While lying is almost an integral part of the growing up years, it doesn’t mean we can sit back and hope our kids outgrow it. We can —- and should -—look into the causes behind dishonest actions and guide our children in the right direction. Here are some guidelines on raising truthful kids:
1. Start early. Encouraging truthfulness can start as early as two or three years old. You can praise your child whenever he admits to a mistake. Sometimes we tend to belittle our children’s capability, but they can think for themselves, stresses Redoble. “Lying is part of the decision making of the child. He will think: ‘Ano ang mas maganda: Magsinungaling ba ako o sabihin ko ang totoo?’ At a younger age you show them how to process, how to think, how to decide, and I think maiiwasan din yung pagsisinungaling.”
2. Avoid comparisons. When we compare our children to ourselves or to other children, we damage their self-esteem. Redoble, who has a teenage boy and a preteen daughter, admits that stopping oneself from comparing is hard. “I’m a preschool teacher and how I deal with my students is different from how I deal with my own kids. I expect so much from my children so I have to double-check myself and my expectations. We have to realize that they are different from us,” she says.
3. Be friendly. Communication is still the best way to reach out to your child, says Redoble. “Let’s try to be more friendly with our children. Dapat may time talaga for the parent and the child wherein they can talk about things as friends. If you have that time with them, they’ll be more open. Mag-kukuwento sila and they won’t hide things from you.”
4. Don’t accuse. If you suspect that your child is lying, do you confront him? Definitely not, says Redoble. Don’t say directly to his face, “You’re lying!” I would just say, “Mukhang hindi yata totoo,” Redoble advises. Getting mad will only force the child to tell the truth out of fear and prompt him to lie more convincingly next time to avoid getting caught.
5. Don’t label. Even worse than accusing is labeling. “If you’re going to label her and tell her, ‘You’re a liar,’ she’ll think, ‘I’m really a liar,’” warns Redoble. Say that often enough and the child will come to believe it. “We are mirrors of our children so if we say you’re this or you’re that, later on they will see themselves like that,” she adds.
6. Talk about the issues. For older kids in particular, parents can forestall future problems by facing them now. Talk to them about sensitive issues such as drugs, smoking and early pregnancy, says Redoble. Process with them —- in a non-lecturing or non-threatening manner —- the consequences of their possible choices.
Truth and consequence Even as we must extol honesty, we must also teach the concept of consequences. “From processing, you should go now to the solution: what should we do now?” Redoble says. Preferably, the consequence should be connected to the “crime.” For the share-a-load incident, Redoble thinks an appropriate consequence would be to take away the daughter’s cell phone for a specific period to make her realize her error. The boy who took home his playmate’s toy should apologize to his friend.
What’s important is to involve the child in the process of finding solutions. The trick, says Redoble, is to pose questions seeking solutions or, if you have solutions, to frame them as suggestions. Let the child think the answers came from him.
For the schoolboy who skipped homework, the parent-child conversation might go this way: “I asked you about homework and you said you had no homework. What do you think will happen to you now? Your grades will fall. Why is this so?” “Because I did not study.” “How can we be sure this doesn’t happen again?” Then they may both agree that every afternoon they would look through his homework notebook together and he would immediately do his assignments in her presence.
Redoble concedes that raising honest children is a big challenge for today’s parents. Talking to them and giving them your quality time every day is paramount. And it isn’t just when they’re little, she says. “You should continue to guide them and give them the right values all the time. You’ll still be a parent even if your child is married or you are already a lolo or lola.”
Do we unwittingly promote lying? If a child lies, it may be because circumstances make him lie. Redoble cites common reasons why children fib. 1. Unrealistic expectations. Children may be forced to lie when parents set standards that are too high for them to reach. Redoble says a child may feel tired, yet the parent will still push him to do his assignment or fix his things. As a result, the poor youngster will just pretend to comply so he won’t be punished, especially if the parent often resorts to spanking. “As parents, we should look at what our children can do and then give appropriate expectations,” advises Redoble.
2. Wrong modeling. We may say one thing yet do the very opposite. Are you credible if you tell your child not to lie but you yourself lie? Admittedly, telling the truth all the time isn’t easy, says Redoble. “Sometimes we have to lie so as not to hurt other people. ‘Maganda ba ang suot ko?’ ‘Oo,’” you reply. If your child is watching, it’s difficult to explain why you had to make a white lie.”
3. A punitive attitude. Have you caught yourself saying: “Sige, sabihin mo ang totoo. ‘Di kita papagalitan”? Then when the kid does admit his fault, you give it to him anyway. Redoble says that some parents lecture or punish the child after he fesses up, making the boy conclude that lying would have been better. A nicer approach is to create an atmosphere that encourages honesty without fear of reprisal.
Lying in children becomes a serious problem when it is constant and com-pulsive. And usually, chronic lying has to do with a lack of self-esteem, says Redoble.
Chronic liars “don’t have a good or positive self-image,” observes Redoble. “They lie in order to get accepted by people. It’s not that they believe it’s true but they want people to believe it’s true. And so lying becomes so easy.”
At the heart of the issue is the feeling of the child that he is not loved. Lying may be a way to catch attention, to tell his parents “I need to be with you,” says Redoble. She gives suggestions on how we can correct the problem. 1. Don’t give up on him. Strive to be accepting, understanding and supportive. Never label or accuse. Ask your child why he did it and try to read more into his actions. Does he feel left out? Does he feel that another sibling is unfairly favored by his parents?
2. See it as a family matter. You cannot dissociate yourself from your child’s actions. You need to find out how your family dynamics could be a contributing factor to his problem.
3. Get outside help. You may need to seek help from psychiatrists and other experts. And it’s not only the child who has to get professional help; it’s the whole family getting involved that can truly help the child.