You mentioned the concrete example of learning to lie well in your house, and attribute it to your fear of punishment. Is that basically it? My question, then, is if/when you encounter lying in your children, how do you address it? How would you deal with a 5 year old whose first instinct seems to be fibbing when asked "what happened?" How do you help a child at that age learn the importance of honesty, when he/she seems to default to dishonesty?
Good question. M is exploring the wonderful world of lying, too.
First, I accept the metaphysically given--this is a normal stage of development, and is not a moral transgression. They are realizing something very important conceptually, and they are trying it out on other people. And it's understandable to want to avoid negative consequences.
I generally call them on the lie as soon as I know it's happened. "Oh I can see with my own eyes what happened [point to evidence] so would you like another chance to say what's true?"
Another thing I've done is to say "I don't think I'm really hearing what's true here." And then shutting up (hard for me to do) and looking at them. I call it the Mommy (Daddy) Jedi Mind Trick. Sometimes it works; sometimes not. I used it most famously in the Incident of the Pink Carpet.
If they've lied and I only find out about it later, well, that's when I'm angry and disappointed. So I will tell them "I'm angry and disappointed to hear this." They need to know how people feel when they are lied to. I tell them that I never lie to them because I wouldn't want them to feel angry and disappointed at me.
If the lying is over time or centered around a particular topic, I am very honest with them about how it has become more difficult for me to trust them in general. I will say "I'm not sure whether to believe you about X." If I say that when they really have said the truth, they get to experience the injustice (as they view it) of having someone disbelieve them when they are being honest!
That last is the most effective. We talk about building trust and breaking trust. Lots of lies can break trust and so it has to be built back up by honesty. When trust is broken, it's hard for the other person to tell a lie from the truth, so they will make mistakes, thinking the truth is a lie. My mistake [in mistaking truthfulness in a particular instance for a lie] is not the result of my error, but theirs. I think Ryan is old enough to comprehend this well. Doubtful about M.
I'm sure they have lied to me about things I haven't figured out yet, but for the most part I think they don't lie nearly as often as one of my siblings did. Of course, Sean is still the wildcard--maybe he'll be our habitual liar.
I have a few other things to say about lying, too, which I didn't address in my original response. (I've written about this on two previous occasions, too.)
My older kids have each gone through what I'd call a "lying phase" where their first response, as C. August wrote, is to lie. Again, I consider this developmentally appropriate. Just as kids test physical limits set by their parents (such as "will she make me climb off the roof of the minivan every time, or just sometimes?"), they test conceptual limits, too. They are learning that they can say something that is untrue, and they are learning about the effects this has on other people's knowledge and emotions (because people don't like being lied to).
Of course, even though it is developmentally appropriate, that doesn't mean I encourage lying or let it go by. I'm just saying that it's important to distinguish lying as part of normal development from lying as a moral transgression.
As with the setting of physical limits, I think it's beneficial to everyone to be consistent in your response to lying. So I will make someone climb off the roof of the minivan every single time (sigh), and I will also make sure that I note a lie when I spot it. And I am honest with them about my feelings about being lied to, and if my trust in the child has been damaged by the lying, I am honest about that, too. (This is the same thing I'd do with an adult who lies to me, too, only I'd also form a negative judgment about their moral character.)
One major reason I don't let lies slide on by without at least mentioning the fact that I am aware I've been lied to is so that if the child is tempted to evade reality, he won't evade with my assistance. Even little "white lies" don't get my assistance in the form of pretending I haven't been lied to. I don't make a big production out of each and every little lie, but I don't let it go either. An example:
"Mom, I brushed my teeth!"
Me: "Really? I noticed your toothbrush is dry, so I don't think what you are saying is true."
I thinking letting it go by sometimes might encourage a child to think "Hey, I got away with it!" which might encourage further testing of this particular limit. And worse, I think letting lies go by might encourage the child to learn to evade.
If there is someone else (Mom) who says the truth out loud, I think it makes it just a bit more difficult to convince yourself that the lie is the truth. And I also think that evasion can become a habit, so anything I can do to throw a stumbling block in the pathway toward that particularly bad habit is something I'm happy to do.
What are some of your strategies for handling lying?