Why do children lie and refuse to accept responsibility for misbehaviour?

If truth be told, most children lie. The natural response to being confronted with a transgression is to lie about it. If someone is asking about it, the defender thinks “Maybe they don’t know. If they knew they wouldn’t be asking me about it, they’d be telling me they know I lied.”

But that’s not the real answer as to why do children lie. Children lie because they are not strong enough yet to tell the truth. A child’s identity is a fragile thing. If someone calls them a name, like a “loser,” or a “wimp,” they are devastated. For that moment that word is all encompassing and they are 100% loser or 100% wimp. When confronted with some “evil” that has been done, the child is not yet capable of saying “I’m basically a good person and I can own up to this mistake.” The child’s fragile embryonic ego says “Oh my god, if I’ve done this horrible thing, I must be a horrible monster. I can’t possibly admit to this because then everyone will know what a horrible person I am.” This moment of guilt is all encompassing to them.

So what’s to be done. Basically we have to wait and be patient and build their ego’s and their self-esteem so they can know how basically solid and O.K. they are. If we do a good job of that then one day we will be surprised be their easy admissions of responsibility. In the meantime we can try to support them with statements like “I know you didn’t mean it.”

A young girl, Lesley, age 7, was playing baseball with two other kids from the neighbourhood. Lesley’s bat slugged Patrick right in the head. Patrick of course started to scream and the parents assessed whether or not a trip to the emergency room was in order. Patrick calmed down quickly and Lesley was encouraged to apologize to Patrick. To everyone’s surprise Lesley said, “But I didn’t do it!” The adults in chorus sang “but Lesley we all saw you. Please say you’re sorry.” Lesley walked away and sulked. You could interpret her behaviour as lying. She was certainly telling an untruth. She was also overtly not accepting responsibility. In truth, what was happening was that Lesley was taking too much responsibility. She was so horrified about what she had done, the idea that she could hurt someone so badly, was completely taking over her identity. She was feeling like a horrible monster. To admit openly what she had done would be to accept her “monsterness” forever. Instead she was running from it the only way she knew how. Lesley was not able to discern, being only seven, that it was a small, cramped backyard, and the group probably shouldn’t have been playing baseball in the first place. This of course was the responsibility of the parents. Lesley was also not able to reason that Patrick was standing too close to the batter. There was much shared responsibility here, but Lesley was taking all of it on the shoulders of her seven year old fragile ego.

When children are continually blamed and forced to take responsibility too early the end result is the opposite of what this parental behaviour is intended to accomplish. The children become defensive and continually refuse to accept responsibility. They fear and maybe rightly that the only person truly on their side is themselves so they had better keep denying and trying to keep themselves from feeling like monsters.