Monday, January 25, 2016

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire?

    You know that children lie, right?

     They really do.  And any parent who tells you “My child has never lied to me,” hasn’t talked to his child, isn’t telling the truth, or is a touch delusional.

     Absolute honesty is actually a very slippery thing in small children. The trick for adults is learning to distinguish between make-believe, imaginative storytelling, simple social lies and outright manipulation through dishonesty.  Children are much more complicated creatures that we often like to think they are.

     When you are small, playing pretend is familiar territory that is visited often and truth becomes shadowy.  If you can pretend to be Spiderman, or invite seven princesses to dinner, it is not much of a stretch to tell your teacher that your dad is a fireman or your mom is having a baby or your family likes to play naked volleyball together?  (My sister was both amused and alarmed to learn that her son as a three year old told his teacher that his family’s favorite thing to do was play volleyball naked in the back yard.)

     Usually a grin or a twinkle in the eye tips you off that the child knows he or she is making up the whole story and wants you to play along.  Sometimes kids have great poker faces and you’ll never know, and they really are hoping to convince you of their big lie. Convincing you is part of their game.  Sometimes children just get caught up in the moment and blurt out what they wish was true as fact.

     However, parents need to be aware that very nice children in very good families can tell very intentional lies.   Sorting out the truth and what to say when is a very important part of growing up.

     In just three or four years of life, children grow from innocent babies to rather savvy social creatures who quickly learn that a little lie might get them rewards or out of trouble.

     Let me cite two examples:
     One little girl played very happily all day in preschool with friends.  When her father picked her up at the end of the day she broke into tears and said she was so sad because no one had been nice to her.  Dad asked if going to McDonald’s for lunch would make her feel better.  She wiped away the tears and nodded “yes” and they headed out the door and dad clearly felt like the hero of the day.  I am certain dad never heard how much fun she had at preschool that day.

     One little boy had a problem with getting excited and whacking other boys while playing.  We dealt with the problem in school, but when I mentioned this to the boy’s mother, she was very upset.  “I have never seen my son ever hit anyone.  I don’t believe he could possibly have done such a thing,” she stated.  I mentioned that running and chasing outside with nine other boys was very different from playing with mom and dad and newborn baby sister.  But mom was certain her son would not hit anyone, ever. 

     The next day she confirmed that she had talked to her son and he said he never hit anyone.  Case closed.    At the end of the year, mom came back with an amended report.  Her son admitted that once he hit a boy who was being mean to a girl and so he had to protect her.  Smiling, mom acknowledged that maybe he had hit once or twice, but it was entirely honorable and for the right reasons.  A little lying not only got the boy out of trouble, he was now noble in mom’s eyes.  But the story simply wasn’t true.

     Enjoy the wink and the smile and go along with the tall tales.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.  And then remember that your child is human and that learning to tell the truth is a process best taught by persistent parents over many years’ time.

© Diane L. Mangum 2012