It’s a Coverup! What to Do When Your Child Lies About a Mistake

By Kimberly Feltes Taylor and Eric Braun, coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes

It’s a Coverup! What to Do When Your Child Lies About a MistakeImagine this scenario: You’re at the checkout counter at the grocery story. All the groceries are rung up—for a total of $52.50. You know you have three twenties, so you think Great! I’ll pay with cash rather than put it on my card. But when you open your wallet, you find only two twenties. You know you had three. So what happened to the third one? Then you remember that your son had asked for money the previous day. He was going to the mall with his friend. He wanted to buy a video game. But you had said no. When you get home from the grocery store, you confront your son, but he denies he took the twenty. He insists that you must have spent it earlier and forgot. It’s possible you could have. So you drop it. But then, two days later, you find the video game he wanted under his bed. This time when you confront your son, he fesses up. But he tries to make excuses. He says he didn’t think you would mind. He says it wasn’t that much money. He says everyone has the game and you’re mean for not letting him buy it in the first place. He says you’re making a big deal out of nothing.

But you know the situation is the opposite of nothing. In fact, it’s two big things:

  • Taking money without permission
  • Lying about it

So what do you do?

Sometimes when we catch a child lying, it feels personal. We may feel betrayed or angry. Or we might worry that our child is going down a bad path or has bad character. So your first instinct might be to ground your son or give him extra chores as punishment. And while that might feel like you’ve taken care of the situation, you may not have accomplished very much. After all, does your son still think it’s no big deal and now he’s just being unfairly punished? Does he still feel like it’s important to keep up with what everyone else is doing—even if that means stealing? Was the biggest lesson he learned that he should do a better job of lying so he doesn’t get punished again?

To address these deeper issues (and the inclination to lie about a mistake is almost always related to a deeper issue), it’s important to work with your child to help him or her own the mistake, fix it, and learn from it.

Own It
Admitting a mistake might feel risky to kids. They might worry that they will be seen as less than perfect. Or they might not want to face the consequences. Help them work through those feelings. Remind them of mistakes you have made and how you found it hard, at first, to admit them. Let them know the benefits of admitting a mistake: You show that you are mature. You show that you can be trusted. You don’t have to feel guilty about lying. You start the process of being able to fix and learn from the mistake.

Owning a mistake can often be the hardest part of this process.

Fix It
When we make a mistake, we need to make it better. In the case of a child lying about something he or she did, there are two mistakes to fix: the original mistake and the lie.

The original mistake might be more straightforward. If your child hurt someone’s feelings, he needs to apologize. If she broke something, she might need to use her allowance or birthday money to replace it. If he didn’t do something he said he would, he needs to do it. Pronto!

But fixing a lie can be a bit more challenging because lying affects how others view us—they might start to see us as dishonest, irresponsible, and untrustworthy. To help your kids fix a lie, explain that they need to tell the truth right away and make assurances that they will be honest in the future. These actions will help others start to trust them again.

Lying can also cause us to feel guilty. Fessing up is the only way to fix that bad feeling. Admitting a lie might be hard at first for kids, but assure them that they will feel better about it in the long run.

Learn From It
With some mistakes, like breaking something valuable, the lesson is clear: Be more careful with valuable things. With lying, the lessons might be more subtle, but there’s always something to take away. The lesson might be that it feels bad to lie—and telling the truth can help you feel better. It might be that lying makes other people trust you less—and telling the truth builds trust. It might even be that people can usually tell when you lie and will likely think less of you—while telling the truth can protect your reputation. If these lessons seem abstract to your child, it may help to illustrate your point with specific examples of how lying has affected your real-life relationships or those of people you know.

Be sure to help your kid understand that everyone makes mistakes and most people have even lied about it once or twice. The important thing is to learn from these mistakes.

Kimberly Feltes TaylorKimberly Feltes Taylor has written over 15 books for young people, including the popular Yolanda series of advice books, which provide tips for dealing with peer pressure, family issues, friendship problems, money management, and workplace dilemmas. Kim has also written dozens of classroom magazine articles. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota


Author Eric BraunEric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow and an Aspen Summer Words scholar for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.

How to Take the ACHE Out of MistakesKimberly and Eric are coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes

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