It is normal for young children to deny allegations, blame others for their mistakes or make up stories. They find it hard to distinguish fiction from reality. Until the age of six or seven, fantasy is a part of children's lives. However, children beyond that age can develop a pattern of deception that can negatively affect their social and emotional development.
Children in elementary school typically know when they are lying. They may lie because they feel trapped, fear punishment, want to please adults, or because the adults around them are dishonest. They may also tell lies to avoid humiliation, escape from work or failure, boost their self-esteem, receive special attention, protect themselves or others, receive peer acceptance, gain something they want, or hide an antisocial behavior such as drug use.
Here are some ideas for educators on how to address this issue...
- Avoid lengthy lectures and severe punishment because they tend to increase the chances of children lying as a defense mechanism. Instead, create a non-threatening environment where children feel safe to tell the truth. Focus on building closeness and trust with students. Never call a child a "liar" because children have a tendency to live up to negative labels.
- Use consequences rather than retaliation. Children who receive harsh punishments for telling lies often become skillful at deception. When they can trust adults not to overreact, children are more likely to acknowledge a lie. Allow children to experience consequences for their behavior. For example, if a child denies tripping another child, he must sit alone or loose a privilege.
- Do not ignore lying. If the goal is to get your attention, the student may tell even more lies. Instead, remind yourself that a child who consistently lies has a problem and needs help to be successful. Always like the child, but not the behavior.
- Look for reasons or patterns. Ask yourself, why is this child being dishonest? Does he want attention? Is he seeking power or excitement? Is she doing it to avoid punishment or school work? Does he or she feel inadequate or overwhelmed? Try to accentuate the child's strengths and make sure your expectations are appropriate for the child.
- Call attention to a child if he or she tells the truth by saying something like, "Thank you, Ryan, for being honest. I admire the way you are willing to face the consequence and I know you can handle it." When truthfulness is acknowledged it is much more likely to be repeated, so reinforce it by saying, "When you are truthful, people will trust you."
- Share hypothetical situations with the class by asking "what if..." questions. If the school rule is that we treat each other with kindness, what if Tom teased the new boy and would not let him play. When the teacher saw the interaction, she said, "Tom, I saw you teasing Michael. What will you do now to help him feel better?" Tom responded, "I didn't do anything!" (Tom not only got one consequence, but two, since he lied about the teasing.)
The teacher can ask the class the following:
Did Tom tell the truth?
If you were Michael, how would you feel?
Why is it important to tell the truth?
- Avoid saying, "If you tell the truth, you won't be punished." Rather teach students that everyone makes mistakes, but that there are consequences for lying. One idea is if a child breaks a rule, there is one consequence and if he or she lies about it, there is an additional one. Dealing with lies in a calm, yet disciplined way teaches children that they are responsible for their behavior.
- Never ask a child a question that invites him or her to lie. For example, do not say, "Did you take the envelope with lunch money off my desk?" Rather describe what you observe in a calm voice, "I see that the money envelope is gone. I am sad that someone took something that was not theirs. It belongs to all of the students and needs to be returned."
- When what happened is unknown, ask the children about it. Observe their facial expressions and other nonverbal behaviors. Listen for inconsistencies in the stories they tell. Ask yourself, "Are the comments spontaneous or rehearsed, believable or full of contradictions?" If you suspect a child is lying, having him or her repeat his story can be helpful in determining the truth.
- Assist a child in saving face if he or she begins to tell a lie. Instead of saying, "That's a lie!" say something like, "That doesn't sound right to me," or "Wait, I need to hear the truth." Then the child may say something like, "Oh, I forgot, it wasn't exactly like that..." Or simply give attention without hearing the lie by interrupting it with a request, "(Child's name), I need you to collect the papers."
- When appropriate, talk about imagination and how sometimes children lie to protect themselves or others. You could say something like, "(child's name), you have a vivid imagination. Your stories are exciting, but now I need to hear the truth," or "In this room we care about each other and it is okay to make mistakes. But, it's not okay to lie to me."
- Discuss lying with a guilty child as privately as possible, and avoid shaming him or her. Your goal is to help the child become more honest. Attempt to find a solution to the problem together by stating what happened and by asking something like, "What will you do now to make things right?" If the child has no response, provide some suggestions from which he or she can choose.
- Model honesty and fairness toward your students and peers. Point out that people can learn from their mistakes, and that if a lie is told it can be rectified if the child or adult acknowledges it. (For children ages three to ten, see the Kelly Bear Behavior book that deals with lying.)
- If lying becomes a significant problem, involve a parent or parents. Help them see that every child needs to feel loved and cared for, even if he or she is not always truthful. Together explore appropriate consequences and rewards that will reinforce truthfulness.
- Seek additional professional help if a child exhibits a repetitive pattern of lying and/or continually denies doing it. Persistent lying can be a symptom of a more serious mental health problem.
Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com]. 1/04
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