I was in the playground the other day at a school I work at. I turned around to find a boy crumpled on the ground, crying, and in pain. His friends were gathered around, doing what friends usually do. I think I asked the question that all adults do “what happened?”. One of the friends piped up and said “I was being silly and I knocked him over”. Wow! How refreshing to hear a child taking responsibility for his actions and feeling safe enough to be able to tell the truth. The same child hurt someone else the next day with his “being silly” but he took a bit longer to tell the truth because a substitute teacher attended to that incident and he wasn’t sure how she would react.

I teach ethics at a primary school. One of the topics this term is “lying”. Most of the kids agreed that there are good lies and bad lies. I asked what is a good lie? A good lie is telling your baby sister there is a Santa Claus, lying so you don’t hurt your friends’ feelings (though the kids acknowledged that this could backfire on them), or to protect someone from harm. I asked why kids tell ‘bad lies’. The reasons were “to protect yourself” and ”so you don’t get into trouble”.

When people consult with me about their children being liars, I usually ask “what are they afraid of?”. All mistaken behaviour arises from fear. A child usually lies because she is fearful of what will happen to her if she tells the truth.

Last year, a young child was labelled as a liar by his school teacher. She would frequently tell him he was a liar in front of the whole class. The parents knew this because many of the child’s classmates would come up to the mother after school and tell her that her son is a liar. When she  asked who told them that, they said it was the teacher. When the parents confronted the teacher she said the child had been lying about why he needed to stand all day at his desk. The child had told his teacher that his back was sore from a sporting injury. When the child’s father looked at the desk, he asked the teacher if his son could sit with his feet on the floor as he is quite short. It turned out he couldn’t reach the top of his page to write because he was too short, so he had to stand. When the desk was exchanged for a smaller one, he no longer stood up at his desk. He was 6 years old, he couldn’t figure out why he needed to stand so he made up a story about it. Then, as he had a reputation as a liar he started getting into a lot of conflict in the playground. The teachers would not believe his version of events. He made up more stories to try and get out of trouble, and the cycle continued. It was a horrible year for him, he was sad and angry most of the time, and friendless.

When she heard the above story, Hazel Wheeler, an early childhood educator in the USA, said…

“This reminds me of reading Bruno Bettelheim’s “A Good Enough Parent” where, at one point in the book, he exhorts parents not to ask children ‘why’ questions— for this very reason; they often don’t know “why” and then they make something up which seems to suit, which is then discovered not to be true and is interpreted as a lie. This puts the child in conflict with themselves, which is a tremendous anxiety for children. It’s so much better for the adults in charge to quietly ask those questions “I notice you have been standing at your desk… are you having a problem with it?” or “What about X are you needing help with/feeling bad about?” This is preferable to a public conversation which is already usually inhibiting for youngsters anyway.”

I worked in child protection for quite some years. When I heard an adult stating a fervent case for a child being a liar, alarm bells would ring for me. I would wonder what behaviours the adult was not accepting personal responsibility for. What errors in their words and actions were they covering up?

I caution teachers and parents about establishing children as “liars”. When a child gains a reputation as a liar, he is placed in a very vulnerable position. Many parents do not know that one of the grooming strategies that a perpetrator uses when he or she has a target child for sexual abuse is to establish the child as a liar. They so thoroughly discredit the child with parents and other people in the child’s life, that if the child discloses that she is being hurt, no-one believes her. If a child already has a reputation as a liar, the job is half done and that makes the child extremely vulnerable to abuse. Our society has a terrible habit of blaming the victims, even children, for the tragedies that have befallen them.

I have worked with very creative children who will tell me elaborate stories that are based on fantasy – wonderful weekends or holidays or events that didn’t happen. Or stories that absolve them of any responsibility in the particular conflict at hand and portray themselves as the victim rather than the protagonist. These children are not “liars”, they are in pain and it is usually a sign that they have suffered some kind of trauma.

In her book “Windows To Our Children” (1978), Dr Violet Oaklander wrote:

“Children lie because they are afraid to take a stand about themselves, to face reality as it is. They are often immersed in fear, self-doubt, a poor self image, or guilt. They are unable to cope with the real world around them, and so they resort to defensive behaviour, acting oppositely from how they really feel.
Often children are forced to lie by their parents. Parents may be too harsh or inconsistent, may have expectations too difficult for the child to meet, or may not be able to accept the child for who he is. The child is then forced to lie as a form of self-preservation. When a child lies , he often believes himself. He weaves a fantasy around the behaviour that is acceptable to him. Fantasy becomes a means of expressing those things he has trouble admitting as reality.
I take children’s fantasies seriously, as expressions of his feelings. Because other people generally do not hear, understand, or accept his feelings, neither does he. He does not accept himself. He must resort to a fantasy and subsequently a lie. So here again it is necessary to begin to tune into a child’s feelings rather than to his behaviour, to begin to know him, to hear him, to understand him and accept him. The child’s feelings are his very core. By reflecting his feelings to him, he too will begin to know and accept them. Only then can the lying be seen realistically for what it is: a behaviour that the child makes use of for survival.”

A child who feels safe, cared for, nurtured, supported, and heard, has no need to ‘lie’.


Related Articles

Teenager lies constantly Dr Laura Markham

Drama queens and wishes Dr Laura Markham

‘Wise Up’ to child sexual abuse    ChildWise



Categories: Managing Mistaken Behaviour


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