Lying is Normal, But Not Okay

prek pre-k class painting children kids sillyYou’ve caught your child fibbing time and time again — even about inconsequential things where telling the truth would not result in consequences. Do you have an issue with integrity? Is it a normal phase of child development? Or are you raising a serial liar?

I’ll never understand why children try to lie their way out of things. They’re terrible liars.

Case in point: I once asked my son if he put the dog out to do his morning business. He said “yes,” so it seemed odd the dog was scratching at the back door.

I opened the door to offer the pup a second chance, thinking maybe his little canine kidneys were working overtime, only to discover fresh, white snow covering the back steps. No dog tracks, no yellow evidence of doggy relief — only the obvious proof my son lied to my face.

Child development specialists reassure us that lying comes at age-appropriate intervals. One study from the University of Toronto says lying is evidence that kids are developing intelligence.

In the study of 1,200 children ages 2 to 17, only 20 percent of 2-year-olds were capable of lying, while 90 percent of 4-year-olds demonstrated this ability. Lying skills peak at about age 12.

Or whenever you shout from the kitchen, “Who left the dirty dishes on the sink,” and all of your children reply, “Not me.”

Lying is, in fact, normal developmental behavior. First, children lie to get what they want. Later, they lie to stay out of trouble. Supposedly, they grow out of it.

Here’s my problem with this theory: Some people don’t grow out of it. As children, they lie to their teachers to avoid detention. Later, they lie to the grand jury to avoid incarceration. These people are called “liars” and they’re everywhere.

Plus, I believe a 9-year-old who lies about something minor, like putting his dog out, will absolutely lie at 19 about where he was until 4 a.m. and why he smells like a Texas roadhouse.

Even though lying is normal, we can’t make the mistake of dismissing it as unimportant. If we’re going to be successful in bringing up children with solid character, we have to respond each time it happens. Lying can become a habit (this is why some kids lie about even inconsequential things), so it’s crucial to recognize when it’s more than just a simple case of cowardice or bad judgment.

The mistake many parents make is to react to lying in the same way you would to other sorts of undesirable behavior. Merely getting angry or taking away privileges only communicates that you’re annoyed, but those responses don’t confront the issue of integrity and the moral imperative to tell the truth.

Children need to learn that lying is not only a problem in the moment; it’s also just plain wrong (as in, some things are always right and other things are always wrong — crazy, I know). Without this strong moral foundation and the integrity it supports, relationships are hurt, trust is lost, and opportunities for freedom and responsibility necessarily are limited.

I recall one episode when my son was young that put me over the edge: his attempt to sneak contraband into school in the form of Sharpie permanent markers. When I confronted him, he said he didn’t know where they came from. The way I reacted, you’d have thought he was a regular villain on “Law & Order.”

I got a full-blown sermon going, my vocal chords inflamed, veins bulging out of my neck. I told him he was ruining his relationship with me because I couldn’t trust him. I told him his deceitful behavior was getting to be a bad habit. I even told him he was a lousy liar anyway, and he lied about things that were just plain stupid.

It may sound harsh, but if your mom won’t tell you, who will? He finally got the message.

Lying may be normal, and it may even demonstrate that children are smart in some measurable, scientific sense. But telling the truth shows they are also children of good character. What could be more important?

Marybeth Hicks is a columnist for The Washington Times and founder and editor of Ontheculture.com.