May 5, 2013


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 (her first day at the school but she is a fabulous teacher).

I teach ethics at my children’s school. The topic 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, my youngest 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. How do I know this? Because many of the children would come up to me after school and tell me that my son is a liar. When I asked who told them that, they said it was the teacher. When we confronted the teacher she said he had been lying about why he needed to stand all day at the desk. He told the teacher his back was sore from a kungfu injury. When my husband looked at the desk, he asked the teacher if my son could sit with his feet on the floor as he is quite short. 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.

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 he or she was not accepting personal responsibility for. 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.

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


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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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4 Comments on “lying”

  1. Artful abuela Says:

    i want to share this. may i?


  2. Hazel M. Wheeler Says:

    Oh, heavens, I feel so for your little boy! How awful to have such an insensitive teacher who couldn’t see past her own bias and who publicly humiliated a child only to prove her point….

    This reminds me of reading Bettelheim’s “A Good Enough Parent” where, at one point in the book, he exhorts parents not to ask our 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.

    I agree that labeling a child as a liar is a very alarming grooming/discrediting skill. 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.

    Very, very good…


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Hazel

      I haven’t read Bettelheim, and I’m glad that my insight aligns with his work. Thank you for that reference. I just googled him and I see he had an interesting life, and he loved Freud. Anyone who loves Freud is OK with me. Thank you for expanding my reading list. And your questions – just wonderful.

      So happy to have your considered comments.


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