In the past couple of weeks, I have caught my eight-year-old son lying to me three times. In the great scheme of things, they were teeny tiny incidents, but despite that, I was surprised by how hurt and disappointed they left me.
Lie Number 1 came when he insisted that he hadn't taken his iPod to bed with him (because he's not allowed to). Even when I found it under his pillow, he swore blind that he didn't know how it had got there.
Lie Number 2 happened a couple of days later when he bent over backwards to convince me that he'd brought his (rather expensive) gloves home from school and that some kind of Glove Gremlin must have taken them. They, of course, turned up the next day – at school.
And Lie Number 3 concerned the last bag of crisps in the multi-pack. The evidence was all around his crumby lips yet he insisted it wosn't 'im wot dun it.
Written down, these incidents seem even more petty than I thought, but at the time, they caused great consternation, resulting in my wife and I having a hand-wringing discussion about whether we had bred a liar and what we could do about it.
When I was a kid I was caught lying by my dad and he gave me a good hiding. Thankfully, we've moved on from such punishments, but I have to say, it was effective: I never lied to him again.
OK, sorry, I lied there. I lied all the time – I just never got caught. And the fact is – without a word of a lie – I still lie now. Even to my own children.
It's not big, it's not clever – but according to research, most parents do it, as a tactic to change our children's behaviour.
A study published in the International Journal of Psychology examined the use of 'instrumental lying' - and found that such tactically-deployed falsehoods were used by an overwhelming majority of parents.
The most commonly used lie was parents pretending to a child that they were going to walk away and leave the child to his or her tantrum.
"The pervasiveness of this lie may relate to the universality of the challenge parents face in trying to leave a place against their child's wishes," the researchers said.
Another lie that was common was the 'false promise to buy a requested toy at some indefinite time in the future'.
Researchers established different categories of these untruths.
There were 'untrue statements related to misbehaviour', which included: ''If you don't behave, I will call the police," and: "If you don't quiet down and start behaving, the lady over there will be angry with you."
But there were also more jaw-dropping lies recorded.
Under the category of "Untrue statements related to leaving or staying" a parent was recorded as saying: "If you don't follow me, a kidnapper will come to kidnap you while I'm gone."
There were also lies motivated by protecting a child's feelings - labelled as "Untrue statements related to positive feelings."
This included the optimistic: "Your pet went to live on your uncle's farm where he will have more space to run around."
A rather self-serving untruth was used for a quick getaway from a toy shop: ''I did not bring money with me today. We can come back another day."
Now I am sure there are many parents reading this who will insist they have never and would never lie to their children (you can spot them by their Pinocchio-style noses) but if it's true that the majority of us are prone to the occasional porky, how can we expect any better from our kids?
Well, I for one, don't want my son to grow up with longer-than-average nose so I've looked into why he might have lied in the first place – and what can be done about it.
Parenting expert Dr Victoria Samuel says all children lie occasionally but a variety of different reasons may prompt them to tell tales.
One reason is they want to 'hide something they know they've done wrong in order to avoid the shame of disapproval and the negative consequences they anticipate adults will impose'.
She offers these tips to encourage honesty:
1. Calmly identify the issue but don't demand confessions.
Don't ask questions about behaviour if you already know the answer! Trying to force your child to confess is rarely effective: most children (and adults) will lie to protect themselves when put on the spot. If you know your child is lying to avoid getting into trouble calmly describe the problem: "I see you got pen on the wall, how can we sort that out?"
If possible, avoid lecturing or criticising your child as this tends to be counter-productive, leading to defensiveness and more lying. Give your child the chance to make amends. For example, if you know they've not prepared their bag for school, don't ask them: "Have you packed your bag?" (which just invites a lie).
Instead, briefly describe the problem: "I noticed your bag isn't ready." Or better still, invite them to take responsibility: "Please show me your bag when it's packed." Never call your child a liar; negative labels such as this can erode self-esteem and lead to self-confirming behaviour.
2. Try to understand why your child is finding it hard to be honest.
If your child repeatedly lies about their actions to avoid discipline, perhaps the consequences you are using are so severe that your child is too afraid to tell the truth. Remember that consequences are about teaching a child, not inflicting distress.
3. Teach your child about why lying doesn't work.
A good way to do this is to read books with your child which give a clear message that lying is not helpful; 'The Boy who Cried Wolf' is an obvious example.
4. Respond with clear consequences.
Make it clear to your child that honesty will get your approval and mean they get off more lightly. This approach means that if your child does something wrong they're less likely to take the risk of covering up with a lie.
5. Set a good example.
Children learn more through watching other people's behaviour than through any other form of direct guidance or discipline. Unfortunately this means that if you're prone to being economical with the truth, be it mouthing 'I'm not in' when your mother-in-law rings, or by taking a few years off your child's age when buying a bus ticket, you will inadvertently be teaching your child that lying is acceptable.
After reading this advice, I decided to lead by example – and it has paid off.
For the other night, my son gave me a cuddle, looked me in the eye, and said with a very truthful face: "You're the best dad in the world!"
And I replied: "If you keep being a good boy, Santa will bring you all the presents you asked for at the end of the year."
More:Is It Just Me?
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