One evening, my six-year-old son began to tell me a long, convoluted story about how two kids had bumped into him on the playground and not said sorry. Then, they had dragged him under a bench and punched him in the ribs. At certain points, he said it was two kids, but at other points it was seven kids, then two kids again. Then, they swore at him, but the things they said seemed to change. No teachers could see them, and no one believed him.
I listened closely and asked questions. Certainly it was alarming to think my kid was being bullied, but at the same time, his story wasn't ringing true as the facts kept changing.
After about 15 minutes of this, I stopped and told him how serious it was for kids to be beating him up, dragging him under a bench, hiding him, and swearing at him. They would likely be asked to leave the school. He told me they were leaving the school – tomorrow, in fact.
"Tell me," I said, "are you being one hundred percent truthful?"
He looked down and without a blink said, "ninety-one percent."
"Did two kids really bump into you on the playground?"
"Yes," he said.
"Did they drag you under the bench?"
"Did they call you poo-poo?"
"No. But they did draw a bad picture of me."
"Is that true?" I asked.
Over the next five minutes, we teased out what was true. I told him he tells incredible stories, and we could write stories together, then draw pictures together. I told him how seriously I took what he said and how important it was for me to be truthful as well as him. He then told one more story. I asked him how truthful it was.
"Maybe seventy-four percent. Or perhaps twenty-five percent," he said.
"There's not much truth there," I said.
"Nope," he said.
Here’s the thing: Children lie for different reasons, but according to Psychology Today, they start as early as two- to three-years-old. So, if you’re worried that your kid is unusual, sit back, breathe, and realize it’s totally normal. What you do with it is key:
1 | Try to find the why
Is your child young, say two- to four-years-old? If so, fact and fiction don’t necessary have a clear line. This means they don't have the complex cognitive processes going on that older kids have. Is your child testing boundaries? Do they want to see if there are consequences for lying about homework? Does your child need attention? Are they using a tall tale to get it? Lastly, is your child simply being creative? My son is known for his incredible story-telling skills. In this case, I tried to highlight that and redirect his energy in that direction.
2 | Get on your child’s team
Lying can become a major power struggle as each insist on the truth. Eliminate power struggles through empathizing. This doesn’t mean agreeing with that version of the truth, but it does mean letting your child know that you understand how upsetting bullying can be. An older sibling taking a beloved toy can be devastating. The drudgery of homework can be exactly that: drudgery. If your child gets that you see her and understand her she will be less likely to spin a tale.
3 | Tell consequences when appropriate
My son spoke of being bullied. The consequences for bullies at his school are very serious. I wanted him to get that. Once he understood that, it was easier to gently call him out on the lie. There are other natural consequences for lying. For my son, it means that it’s harder for me to trust him. I want to believe him. I want to be on his team and advocate for him. Lies make that a lot harder. I want him to know I have his back and will always listen, even if the truth is hard to take.
4 | Model truth-telling
I don’t lie to my son. If I don’t want to tell him the truth of something, I’ll say that. If I ate the last of the cake and forgot to save him a piece, I’ll tell him that. If I made a mistake about the date of a fun event, I’ll say that. For me, there’s no “losing face.” I messed up. It doesn’t make me a bad person, just as his mistakes don’t make him a bad person. I want him to know we all make mistakes, and I’m willing to be honest about that.
So, the next time your child tells a lie, what will you do? Hopefully create a safe space where the truth can be revealed, or divert attention to a new creative project. If they’re young enough, you might help them to sort fact from fiction. If they’re old enough, you might get them to see the seriousness of their lies - or the creativity of it. After all, you might just be raising the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.