Over coffee with a friend recently, we both admitted that nothing can send us through the roof like our kids telling a lie.
You know how it goes.
Your kiddo promised they brushed their teeth, yet the toothbrush in the bathroom is suspiciously dry. They assure you they did their homework, yet it’s crumpled—undone—in the bottom of their backpack. They check “clean room” off the chore chart, but all their stuff is just shoved out of sight under the bed. Your browsing history reveals they’ve gone out of bounds online, even as they deny the whole thing. And of course they wouldn’t dream of snitching a cookie right before dinner.
There’s something uniquely stressful and frustrating about our kids’ dishonesty. It damages trust. It stirs all kinds of worry about their character and who they’re becoming. It can stir up shame in our hearts as we wonder, Have I failed as a parent? Where did things go wrong? What do I do now?
Over the years of parenting our five kids, we’ve asked those questions and more. We’ve reacted—and overreacted—in every way you can think of. Today we’d like to share five ways we’ve learned are helpful in responding when our kids tell a lie. We pray they’re a help to you too.
#1: Adjust Expectations
In the area of honesty, it’s easy to forget our kids are kids! Yet children are notoriously impulsive. Emotions sway their actions. Problem-solving skills are a work in progress. They haven’t mastered cause-and-effect thinking. They dread the disapproval of adults in their lives. Kids are curious and playful and livin’ in the moment. So, when faced with the threat of discipline, the burden of work, or the enticement of something fun, they may not have the maturity to tell the truth or follow instructions.
As parents, we can study our kids for an understanding of how much responsibility they can handle at their age and stage. We’ll discover if they need more support or supervision to accomplish their tasks. We’ll know their capacity to wait patiently and to resist temptation. You and I will identify those especially challenging situations that test our kids’ integrity the most.
#2: Pull Back the Layers
We remember a time when our child was avoiding homework like the plague. Each time we asked about the day’s assignments, we were told they were finished and handed in. Yet a teacher’s email exposed a pile of missed work and lack of effort at school.
Caught off guard, our impulse was to sit our child down and list off all the “crimes” committed. Lying! Skipping schoolwork! Misbehaving in class! It would have been so easy to point fingers and accuse our child of bad motives and character.
Thankfully, before we unloaded an angry lecture or handed down punishment, we paused. We started asking questions. One question was, “What is it about your homework that feels so hard you needed to lie to get out of it?” Immediately our child’s guard dropped. We learned how stressed and overwhelmed they felt at school. How worried our child was about failing. How anxious emotions caused our child to shut down instead of pushing through.
By asking gentle, specific questions, we learned the important issue was NOT the lie—it was the stress and pressure our child was suffering. The lie was simply a clue that something was wrong. By digging a little deeper with our kids when they lie, we may find they’re simply afraid, hurt, or stuck in a problem that feels too big to handle on their own.
#3: Protect Your Child’s Identity
One of my most embarrassing moments was when I lost my friend’s wallet at the mall. She’d asked me to hold it, but I set it down at a store counter and walked away. The worst part was that my African friend’s wallet held all her most important legal documents to travel and study in the U.S. Thankfully we recovered it safe and sound, but those moments of panic took years off my life!
My friend could have been angry and slapped all kinds of labels onto me. Labels like careless. Inconsiderate. Thoughtless. Forgetful. Yet her sweetness and grace brought nothing but kindness my way.
When our children fail to tell the truth or act with integrity, our challenge is to keep their identity intact. They may lie, but they are not liars. They may cheat to win a game, but they are not cheaters. They may dodge their work, but they are not lazy good-for-nothings.
Our children are people who sometimes fail and sin (just like us!), but they are beloved image-bearers of Jesus. Assuring our children that we see them and love them—set apart from their mistakes—will protect their identity and their hearts.
#4: Follow Jesus’ Example
Coping with our kids’ lies becomes more difficult when one lie leads to another. And another. And yet another. Our patience is tested and we grow discouraged, wondering if they’ll ever win their battle to do what’s right.
God’s Word is a priceless help when we’re feeling angry or disappointed, betrayed and hopeless with our kids:
“Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4)
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
“Love is patient, love is kind… It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 7)
“So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine… Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” (Deuteronomy 11:18-19)
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” (Philippians 4:6)
“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.” (James 1:5)
In the Word, Jesus shows his way of forgiveness. Of tenacious faith that trusts in God and holds on to hope for the ones we love. Of diligent prayer and taking every opportunity to tell the truth of God. If we abide in Jesus, his Spirit will give us what we need to parent our kids with wisdom, gentleness, and love.
#5: Praise Their Progress
If we could sit down over tacos, we could share with each other how we’ve grown. Maybe we’re a little more brave or grateful than we used to be. Maybe you’re moving a dream from an idea to a reality in your life. Maybe we’re growing in our self-discipline or we’ve healed from some old wounds. In whatever area we’ve made progress, we would celebrate with each other and spur each other on.
Our kids need encouragement too, don’t they? When they’re honest about a mistake they’ve made, let’s shine a light on that. When they do what’s right with no one watching, let’s call it out. When they face that hard thing instead of sneaking around it, let’s celebrate their courage. Each time we see a glimmer of integrity or a right choice after a string of not-so-right ones, we can praise what they’ve done. By cheering for each step of growth toward honesty, we’ll help them to embrace truth in their lives.
A Prayer for Today
Lord, our kids can struggle to be honest. To show integrity. To admit when they’ve made mistakes. They turn to lies to protect them from shame or trouble. Help us to be parents of grace when our kids tell a lie. Give us wisdom to recognize what’s in their hearts and minds. Show us how to teach them your way of courage and truth. Make our home a safe place to struggle, to learn, and to grow. Fill us with your faithful, tender love for our children. Amen.