Most parents at some point must deal with a child who lies. That’s because lying is a natural part of a child’s development. Very young children have a difficult time distinguishing between make-believe and reality; lying helps them test and discover what is true and what isn’t. By the time children reach age 7 or 8, that testing is behind them and they should have a sense of right and wrong.

While it isn’t as worrisome when young children lie, those early years are the ideal time to begin teaching children to tell the truth. You can use the same techniques for both younger and older children. The key is imposing consequences that fit the situation and the child’s accountability.

Basically, consequences for negative behaviors should escalate when the child lies and be reduced when the child tells the truth. For example, if your child knowingly breaks a family rule about watching television, the basic consequence would be a loss of television privileges for a period of time. You could extend or shorten that period of time based on whether the child lied or told the truth.

In determining consequences, it’s important to consider why your child lied. Older children lie for many of the same reasons adults do — they’re ashamed of a mistake, fearful of consequences or trying to protect another’s feelings.

Lying about knowingly breaking a family rule should be treated differently than lying about a situation your child inadvertently encountered and didn’t know how to handle. You can use either situation as a teaching opportunity, exploring more positive ways your child could have handled the situation and again instilling the importance of honesty between parents and children. This can be an important step in getting your child to turn to you rather than others when he needs help.

Obviously there will be times when parents suspect a lie but can’t be sure. If you are a religious family, you can suggest that even if you don’t know what really happened, God does. Another tactic is to tell your child you expect the truth, then give him a period of time (perhaps until tomorrow) to tell you the truth. If you have more than one child and are uncertain which is lying, you can impose a consequence for all the children until the guilty one comes forward.

A couple more important tips: If you know your child lied, don’t ask her whether she did. It sets her up to lie further. It’s far more effective simply to impose the consequence.

Also, deal with the child’s lie privately rather than in front of others. It builds dignity and self-respect in the child — both of which are important for preventing future problems.

Finally, and most importantly, if you want to raise a child who tells the truth, tell the truth yourself. Parents who model honesty are far more likely to raise honest children.

As published in the August 2004 Edition of the La Crosse Tribune.