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“Did you take that cookie?” (“No.”)
“Where have you been?”   (“Nowhere.”)
“What happened?”            (“Nothing.”)
“What did you do? Did you hit her?” (“I didn’t do it.”)

Innocent questions like these, intended to get the information we think we need to parent responsibly, only set our children up to lie. When questions are accompanied by even the slightest tone of accusation, children who are usually punished or yelled at for misconduct are left with little option other than to lie to protect themselves.

Po Bronson, co-author of Nurture Shock, says that avoiding punishment is the number one reason for lying. Children also lie to increase their power and ability to control with bragging and teasing. He also claims that studies show that punishing for lying does not teach children to tell the truth. It only makes them hyper-vigilant of the possibility of losing their freedom and privileges and distracts them from learning how lies affect others. They also become better liars and learn how not to get caught.

Instead of punishing our children for doing something wrong, we need to teach them the value and the inner peace of doing right. We teach them that tattling is bad but don’t teach them how to report wrongdoing. We teach them to keep quiet, hide their feelings, and never tell when they do something they know is wrong. Our reactions teach them to get more secretive and more sneaky.

And are we genuine with our feelings? Are we ever disingenuous with friends, relatives, and strangers? “Oh don’t be silly. We love having you visit” is off key for children who have heard our remarks and promises that we’ll never do that again.

So what should we do? First of all, stop punishing your children. Use problem solving and conflict resolution skills to hold them accountable. It takes more time, energy, and no-how. Punishment is easy, quick, and requires very little thinking. But at what cost comes this age-old labor saving device? Stop going for the easy fix.

Dr. Nancy Darling of Penn State University says that 98% of teens lie to their parents. In her study, Darling looked at what kind of a family raises the most truthful children. She found that permissive parents, who may fear that rules keep their children from communicating, actually raise children who think their parents don’t care whether they tell the truth or not. She also found that parents with the most rules seldom enforce them. And autocratic, oppressive parents raise more obedient children but those children are more likely to be depressed, leading to many other problems. She claims, “The type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids.” They set few rules but explain what those rules are for. And they expect the rules to be followed without punitive enforcement. They support “the child’s autonomy, allowing them freedom to make their own decisions.”

Also, argue and negotiate. Darling’s study showed that teenagers see arguing as the opposite of lying. The same arguments viewed by a parent as stressful or destructive to their relationship, was seen by their teens as strengthening the relationship because they get to hear their parent’s point of view and share their own. Liars rarely argue with their parents. And controlling parents who give knee-jerk no’s for answers, rarely engage in arguments. “In the families where there was less deception there was a much higher ratio of arguing and complaining. The argument enabled the child to speak honestly.”

How long the argument drags on and how it is resolved is what makes the difference between strong and weak relationships. Problem solving requires negotiation, which is often accompanied by an argument or two. The inherent question in problem solving is, How can we make this work? It means both parties understanding, not necessarily agreeing, with each side and being respectful of where the other one is coming from. Even when the parent ends up with a no and the child is left feeling frustrated and angry, he also knows he was heard—not usually the case with punishment. So argue away—just don’t do it endlessly. Your child can always outdistance you. As soon as you know your answer, be clear and stop engaging in the argument. “I get it that you don’t like my decision. It is a final one so I’m not going to keep going on this.”

Expect your youngsters to fib and make up stories, both to brag and to keep you from being disappointed in them. They are protective mechanisms and show that conscience is developing. Take the word LIE out of your vocabulary. That is not what your young children are doing.

The irony of lying is that it is both normal behavior with social people as well as wrong and hurtful. Simply teaching your child to only tell the truth will likely not get the results you want. More important is to teach them how lies can both deceive and hurt as well as protect and care. See if you can teach this subtle distinction, which is paramount for children understanding right from wrong.