How to Explain to a Child "Why Lying is Wrong"?

How to correctly answer the endless and imaginative “whys” of human toddlers is probably a common parenting concern for all young parents. Zhihu, in collaboration with the Children’s Society, has launched “Zhihu’s Version of One Hundred Thousand Whys,” a new generation of popular science enlightenment picture books. Various organizations, experts, and outstanding Zhihu contributors from various fields join young parents to find new answers to children’s “new questions.” This question originates from “Zhihu’s Version of One Hundred Thousand Whys.” How would you respond?

The Consequences of Lying

This year, as school started, I prepared a lot of stationery, including a 48-color watercolor pen set and other art supplies. My daughter happily took them to school, but she didn’t bring them back after the first class.

I asked her, “Where are the new watercolor pens?”

She said, “I think they’re at school.”

So, every art class, she went unprepared, saying the school had some.

Mid-term came, and during the parent-teacher meeting, I noticed her drawer was void of any watercolor pens.

After the meeting, I asked her again, “The school doesn’t have the watercolor pens, do they?”

She replied, “Then they must be in the after-school class.”

In front of my daughter, I inquired the after-school teacher, who had not seen them.

I asked her, “Where did the watercolor pens go?”

She said, “I don’t remember, they’re gone.”

I asked, “How are you managing in art class recently? You don’t have watercolor pens!”

She admitted to borrowing from others.

This was an opportunity for a serious conversation about the consequences of lying:

1. Always Unprepared for Art Class!

Being able to borrow pens every class suggests you have good friendships, but it’s always better to have your own! Had you told me the truth from the start, you wouldn’t have been without pens for so long.

2. The Truth Will Emerge.

Secrets don’t stay hidden; don’t think parents won’t find out the truth or that your friends won’t tell us, “Your daughter is always using my pen, and she’s used them all up!”

3. Loss of Trust.

This is serious. The story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is classic for a reason. The boy was eventually ignored by the villagers when he was actually in danger due to his consistent lying. If you lie, eventually your truth won’t be believed, and your falsehoods will.

4. One Lie Leads to Another.

From claiming the pens were at school to them being at the after-school class, one lie led to another until it was clear there were none. Eventually, my daughter admitted she was afraid of being scolded, which is why she didn’t confess to losing the pens.

As parents, considering these situations, we must:

1. Pay More Attention and Communicate with Children

Understand the motive behind their lies to address the issue properly.

2. Encourage Honesty

When a child makes a mistake but comes forward, it’s important to encourage this honesty.

3. Be a Role Model

Demonstrate the importance of keeping promises, no matter how small.

4. Accept Mistakes and Analyze Reasons Together

Don’t just blame; help your child understand the mistake and work together to find a solution. The follow-up to the initial story is that we bought new pens and labeled them, ensuring they weren’t lost again.

5. Avoid Labeling Children

Don’t be the kind of parent that your child is afraid to be honest with.

Let’s encourage each other in this journey!

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The Complex Nature of Lying and Its Developmental Significance

If your child starts lying at a little over two years old, you might actually feel relieved. Very young children do not lie; imagination is a sophisticated cognitive ability, and the ability for a child to start describing non-existent things signifies growth, akin to their first crawl or walk.

For a young child to learn this “skill” of lying, they must understand two things: first, the listener’s understanding of events differs from their own; second, they need to anticipate how the listener will react favorably to their responses.

If a toddler over two years old starts to lie, they are ahead of the curve. Approximately half of all children will begin to lie around the age of three, and by around four, up to 90% might engage in lying.

Once a child begins to describe things that don’t exist, it’s like opening a new door to a world where they realize they can manipulate others' thoughts by telling and creating stories to their advantage.

Allowing children to lie, especially younger ones, without an overreaction is important.

I often use storytelling to discuss principles and reason with my children. I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old, and I’ve noticed that the younger one has indeed started lying, particularly when admitting faults.

Our discussions flow naturally, guided by the children’s thoughts, using hypothetical scenarios to help them organize their thoughts.

I asked them, “Do you know what lying is?”

The older child said, “For example, a child throws something from a high place, and when the mother asks if they’ve thrown anything, the child denies it—that’s lying!”

This example, probably drawn from a recent lesson on the dangers of throwing objects from heights, was good. I asked, “What might happen if you lie in such a situation?”

The younger child said, “It might hit someone!”

The older one corrected, “Getting hit is because of throwing the object, not because of lying!”

I continued, “Right, but what if the child insists they didn’t throw anything and someone gets hurt? What then?”

The older child pondered, “The mother might believe him.”

I asked, “And if the injured person comes to inquire and the mother insists it wasn’t from their home, and the person leaves, how might the child feel?”

“Happy,” said the older child, “because they got away with doing something bad.”

“And what else might happen?” I probed.

“They might do it again, with something bigger!” said the older child.

The younger chimed in, “Like throwing a sofa!”

The older countered, “You can’t throw a sofa! But anyway…”

I interjected before the debate could escalate, “Let’s not focus on the sofa. Anything thrown from a height can cause harm.”

The younger child added, “It could kill someone, and then the police would come.”

The older realized, “And when the police come, lying won’t help. They can find out the truth.”

I concluded, “You’ve both explained it well! Lying might let you escape punishment temporarily and feel momentarily relieved, but it leads to more mistakes. Eventually, the lie is uncovered, leading to greater punishment. And if you lie too often, even your truths might not be believed.”

In my view, the consequences of lying include becoming cunning and crafty.

Specifically, it fosters a habit of wanting to break rules and erodes personal reputation, leading to social ostracization.

From this perspective, individuals prone to lying don’t gain evolutionary advantages. Logically, through long-term evolution, the propensity to lie should be weeded out.

However, human nature is complex. Sometimes there are well-intentioned lies, truths people prefer not to acknowledge, and occasions calling for flexibility. The “lying gene” has not vanished.

In the adult world, reality is often a mix of truth and lies. I hope my children, when faced with significant moral decisions, will have clear judgment but also preserve their innate goodness, being magnanimous rather than deceitful.

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The Counterproductive Nature of Punishing Lies

If you explain “why lying is bad” in the following manner:

  1. You constantly demand a detailed report from your child, including test scores, school performance, playtime with friends, and their thoughts when doing something wrong, to judge if they are lying;
  2. The moment you discover any wrongdoing, poor grades, or lies from your child, you punish them severely, shame them, and threaten to tell all their friends, teachers, and classmates about their lies;
  3. After punishing them for lying, you tell them stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” explaining that lying children will be eaten by wolves, ostracized by everyone, and suffer endless consequences.

Congratulations, you are likely to end up nurturing a

Master of Deception.

The child you imagine, who is afraid to lie due to the horrifying consequences, does not, has not, and will not exist.

Even an immature child has an innate formula:

If they do something wrong and don’t lie, the punishment is between 2-100; if they lie and get away with it, the feeling of accomplishment is 30-100, but if caught, the punishment is 100-200. They realize from their past 10 actions that the average payoff from lying is much higher than not.

Despite severe consequences when caught, parents' ability to judge is limited! They can’t always be there to see everything, and not all lies are discovered. So, the child thinks, by understanding the parents' patterns and improving their lying skills, they might cover their tracks better next time, right?

It may sound ludicrous, but this is the genuine mindset of a child. Once you resort to corporal punishment for mistakes and lies, the child’s first instinct is to fabricate a lie to escape the punishment, not to be honest with you. If caught, they don’t think about the wrongness of lying, but rather, “Oh no, I didn’t lie well enough.”

To encourage children to understand why lying is wrong, parents might consider saying:

“I love you, and I believe what you say.”

And then truly believe them.

Young children often casually say things that are clearly fantasy. Just laugh it off. It’s not lying if children can’t differentiate between reality and fantasy yet.

Don’t demand exhaustive reports from your child.

If there’s a discrepancy in what the child says, don’t directly accuse them of lying. Instead, gently prompt, “What you said just now seems different, is that right?” They might have simply forgotten details and filled in gaps spontaneously.

Also, abandon corporal punishment entirely as a means to correct wrongdoings and lies. This doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t discipline their children; discipline is necessary. However, it can be implemented without physical punishment, including but not limited to time-outs, withholding privileges like snacks or games, canceling weekend plans, locking up toys for a while, house chores, and creating a plan to prevent future mistakes.

When you genuinely believe what they say, eventually, they will realize that lying is distressing.

If they do something wrong and don’t lie, the punishment is 0, but the satisfaction is 100. If they lie and get away with it, the satisfaction is 0, but the guilt is 50-200. If caught lying, that option disappears.

Without the fear of corporal punishment or the thrill of getting away with lies, lying loses its appeal. Instead, it can bring unpredictable and unpleasant consequences. Why lie then? The peace and contentment of honesty far outweigh the fleeting success of deceit.

As they mature, they will understand why people shouldn’t lie: because they love and value a life of honesty and integrity, they choose not to lie.

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Children and Honesty

Children may lie, but it depends on who they are facing and their motives. Understanding and guiding them is essential to foster honesty. It’s not just about telling the truth; it’s about teaching them the value of honesty in various situations.

The Complexity of Truth and Lies

The concept of “never lying” is not absolute.

For instance, imagine a scenario where Japanese soldiers inquire about the whereabouts of wounded Eighth Route Army soldiers. You were taught never to lie, so you truthfully disclose that they are hidden in a certain villager’s home. Are you foolish or malevolent?

Consider another scenario: a friend’s birthday celebration. You were taught never to lie, so instead of wishing them a long life, you honestly wish them to live until the average life expectancy of 77 years. Are you naive or malicious?

Or when you’re in a romantic relationship, and your partner asks if a newly bought outfit looks good on them. You were raised never to lie, so you truthfully respond that it looks terrible and unfashionable. Are you gullible or harmful?

Hence, the principle of “never lying” requires context and specificity rather than absolutism. If someone insists that you must always tell the truth, regardless of circumstances or people involved, be cautious, as they may be irrational, naive, or even malicious.

Now, the real question arises: when should you tell the truth, and when should you fib?

I found a fitting principle while reading “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at night: “Do not do unto others what you wouldn’t want done unto you.”

In other words, don’t impose on others what you dislike. Following this principle, you can navigate between “telling lies” and “telling the truth” seamlessly.

For instance, in a romantic relationship, if your partner asks if a new outfit looks good, evaluate based on the “Do not do unto others what you wouldn’t want done unto you” principle. Would you prefer to hear that you look terrible, or would you rather be complimented on your beauty?

If you’re a typical person, you’d prefer the latter. Therefore, if your partner’s new outfit is, in fact, beautiful, you should choose not to lie.

Conversely, if it genuinely looks unattractive, you should choose not to tell the truth.

So, my friends, have I made myself clear?