Lying could be caused by your response to truth


January 29, 1995|By BEVERLY MILLS

Q: My 6-year-old daughter has a tendency to lie. A lot of times she'll lie to me and tell her father the truth. What should I do?

L.R., Shelby, N.C.

A: Sometimes, without even realizing it, parents actually encourage their children to lie.

When children encounter an adult whose reactions to the truth are unpleasantly strong, they tend to modify what they say to these people, says Charles Ford, a psychiatry professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, who is writing a book on lying.

Fear of punishment is just one of the reasons children lie. Sometimes they simply want attention, says Mary R. Riley, director of support services at Family Services of Tidewater in Norfolk, Va.

"At times it's appropriate to ignore the lying so as not to give attention to their attention-seeking behavior," Ms. Riley says.

Sometimes children's lies reveal what they wish the truth to be.

"In my book I use the example of a 6-year-old who tells her dad she'd like to have a TV in her room at his house like she does at

her mom's house," Dr. Ford says.

"Her father knew she didn't have a TV in her room there, either, so his response was a question: Do you mean to say that you'd like to have a TV in your room at both places? The girl just smiled and nodded yes."

This father's response was enlightened, Dr. Ford says, because if he had turned the issue of the lie into a big confrontation, he would have merely shut down communication.

"Even the smallest lies really upset parents because it cuts right to the issue of trust," Dr. Ford says. "Truthfulness is something parents require in order to protect their children, and that's one reason why cultures develop such strong moralistic views of the truth."

One mother from Algonquin, Ill., says that when her 7-old-daughter went through a lying phase, it helped to stage a heart-to-heart talk.

"I just sat her down and told her the worst thing that could ever happen is for her parents to lose trust in her," Sheri Beck says. "It really hurt her feelings to know that we wouldn't be able to trust her, and it really made her think. We haven't had a problem with her since."

Along with this comes a responsibility to explain the times when the truth may not be the best course of action, Dr. Ford says.

"We all lie continuously," Dr. Ford says. "We hide our emotions, and we tell Aunt Martha she looks great when she doesn't."

Even young children observe these inconsistencies.

"What do children think when you tell them there's absolutely nothing worse than lying, and they answer the phone five minutes later, and you say to tell the salesperson you're not at home?" Dr. Ford asks.

While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.


Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

* Teaching responsibility: "Yesterday, our 10-year-old played around the neighborhood for four hours without checking in, and now he's grounded," says C. Klein of Raleigh, N.C. "We're trying to give him more freedom, and we know we've got to start letting him make decisions. But how do we teach him to make good decisions?"

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