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How to Discipline a Child for Lying

by 
author image Maria Magher
Maria Magher has been working as a professional writer since 2001. She has worked as an ESL teacher, a freshman composition teacher and an education reporter, writing for regional newspapers and online publications. She has written about parenting for Pampers and other websites. She has a Master's degree in English and creative writing.
How to Discipline a Child for Lying
It's important to explain why lying is wrong. Photo Credit: Choreograph/iStock/GettyImages

Kids can start lying as young as 3, and it can make parents wonder where they have gone wrong in raising them. The truth is that all kids lie at one time or another, just as adults do.

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Kids may lie to protect someone's feelings, or to get out of trouble. Discipline should focus not just on consequences for lying but also on getting to the root of the lying to prevent it from happening again.

See Things Like a Child

Understand the reasons your child is lying. Dr. William Sears says there are several common reasons that your children could lie, including a fear of getting in trouble, a fear of rejection, low self-esteem, the need for attention, or to indulge in fantasy and pretend play.

Kids also lie if they feel trapped. Just like adults, children can panic and resort to lying in order to avoid the immediate consequence. But unlike adults, they may not have the cognitive ability to understand that what they are doing is not the best option — especially if they are very young.

Once you understand why your child is lying, you can address that need and reduce the lying. For example, if your child is lying to get attention, focus on acknowledging appropriate behavior and spend more one-on-one time together. When you pay attention to the behavior you want your kids to have, they are more likely to continue making choices.

Mistakes Are Learning Opportunities

Here's the thing, if you tell your child they are a liar and punish them without any explanation, you've just lost a teachable moment. Yes, kids need consequences for their actions. But they also need adults to teach them how to behave.

One way you can encourage your child to be truthful is talk about how mistakes are opportunities to learn. For young children, many of their lies are in response to a mistake they made. Their actions are not necessarily intentional. More than likely, they are being impulsive, forgetful, or just being a kid who doesn't understand the rules. And when they are questioned as to "why" they behaved a certain way, they may resort to lying to make the stress of the moment go away.

You can teach them how to make appropriate choices by showing them how important it is to be truthful. Try having a conversation with your partner with your child close-by. Talk about a mistake you made and how you almost tried to cover it up with a lie.

But instead, you chose to accept the mistake, tell the truth, face the consequences, and learn from it. You can even drop a subtle hint that even though it was really hard to decide to tell the truth, it felt so much better once you did.

You can use the same process if your child lies. Make sure you include them in the problem-solving process. They need to be able to explain the mistake they made and what they learned from it, with your help, of course. Depending on the action, you can choose to have further consequences once you have taken advantage of this teachable moment.

Create Consequences and Rewards

Create consequences and be consistent in enforcing them. Dr. Phil McGraw says that when children know what consequences they will face as a result of lying, they make the choice each time to either lie or to accept the punishment. Consequences should be age-appropriate and specific, such as loss of phone privileges, limited social time or removal of the TV from the bedroom.

Set your child up for success. Don't ask your child questions to which you know the answer and to which he might be tempted to lie, such as "Did you spill the milk?" when you see that he has or "Did you clean your room?" when you know that he hasn't. PositiveDiscipline.com recommends instead saying things like "I notice you didn't clean your room. Let's work on a solution together."

Focus on building closeness and trust. When you have a strong relationship with your children in which they feel loved unconditionally and know that you are there to help them work through solutions together, they will be less likely to lie to you.

Acknowledging their choice to tell the truth — even if it was difficult to do — helps reinforce the behavior you're trying to develop

Parents of young children can read books with them that stress the importance of honesty, as well as talk with them about how much they value honesty and how it helps the family.

Don't label the child a liar. Dr. Phil McGraw says that calling a child a liar can reinforce the behavior, making him believe that he is a liar and having no reason to stop doing so.

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