For the most part, kids make terrible liars. But every now and then you find yourself in that tricky position as a parent when you just can’t tell if your child is lying or not. They may get violently defensive, or they may put on a stone-cold poker face that could fool even a seasoned gambler. Or they may create such a mindbogglingly elaborate story that you have to stand back, stunned, and quote Ron Burgundy from Anchorman: “I’m not even mad. That’s amazing.”
Here are a few things to look for when you can’t quite figure out if your kid is pulling the wool over your eyes.
1. Avoiding Eye Contact
It’s pretty hard to look someone in the eye and lie straight to their face. It usually takes a seasoned politician to pull that off. So if you notice your child’s gaze darting around the room as they try to sell you on their innocence, most likely they are wracked with guilt about something. One exception, however, is if they look “up”. When we are trying to recall a true event, we tend to look skyward, as if replaying the moment in our mind. So give’em a pass if they look to the heavens; but anywhere else and there’s a good chance they’re hiding something from you and as a result can’t look you in the eye.
2. Deer In Headlights
Before the tears, before the defensiveness, before the b.s. story they are about to unload on you, there will be that millisecond when you first question them, when the panic alarm goes off in their head. That’s the moment you’re looking for. Try to read that frozen face. If you see fear, you’ve probably caught them. And you’re about to be lied to.
3. Touching The Face
The most famous of all the pantomimes, anybody who has ever read a book on poker or watched a criminal investigation show has heard of the face scratch. Specifically, the nose, mouth or ear. It’s incredible how prescient this tell is even in adults. Even if you know about it, it’s hard to stop yourself from doing it! Next time you tell a lie of your own, see if you accidentally tug your ear or rub your nose. Granted, such a small gesture may not be enough to incriminate your child altogether, but it’s sill something to look for.
“Wait. I mean no. I mean yes. I mean…Wait.” Inconsistencies are probably the most frustrating part of any child’s lie, because you can never be sure if they simply have poor memory recall or they’re actually trying to put one over on you. But for the most part, if the details keep changing and just don’t add up, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being hoodwinked. Surefire tell-tale sign of a lie: If the story starts spinning out of control to the point where you’re trying hard not to laugh.
A sort-of companion to inconsistencies above is diarrhea of the mouth. Older kids try to kill your accusation by beating it to death with excess talk. Just stand there and let them ramble for a few minutes, see where it goes. Oftentimes they will finish their monologue and look up at you, awaiting your final judgment. In that moment, as their words hang in the air, you can see a look of hope wash across their face. Did you buy it?
This one is brutal, because you never want to see your kids cry. But many younger kids will simply burst into tears at being caught in a lie. They have no game whatsoever when it comes to deception, and that’s a good thing. Advice here is to be super-forgiving of whatever the infraction is and try to see the bigger picture: your kid hates lying and sucks at it. You should be thrilled, not mad.
7. Change The Subject
Kids do this all the time when caught in a lie. “Can’t we just talk about something else?” They couldn’t possibly be more uncomfortable about lying and they can’t stop themselves from basically admitting as much.
Kids are fidgety as it is, but if you catch them in a lie, you’ll likely see ants-in-the-pants type of action, shifting weight from one foot to another, frustrated little body kicks and spasms, maybe even a foot stomp. Grown-ups are pretty susceptible to this tell also, as biological changes such as increased heart-rate and blood pressure manifest in physical discomfort. Look for leg shakes when standing and fingertaps on the table if they are sitting down.
You may sometimes hear a child vehemently deny wrongdoing a hundred times before finally admitting that they did it. You have to tread lightly here because an innocent person will also become very defensive, so never use this tell all by itself. But if you see defensiveness, fidgeting, and changing the subject all at once, they are most likely being deceptive.
10. The Flat-Out Admission
Seems obvious, right? If they admit to it, they did it. So why not help them get there? In of the best books about parenting ever written, Nurture Shock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors suggest that what kids really want, more than anything, is to make their parents happy. So tell your child, “I will not be upset if you did X. And if you tell the truth, I will be really happy. This is an offer of both immunity and a clear route back to good standing.” Why go through the rigmarole of an uncomfortable interrogation, if you can cut to the chase and get a confession? Just remember to stick to your promise and not punish them when they confess.
Calling your kids bluffs isn’t a pleasant business: nobody wants to be in the position of having to sniff out a lie. But just remember, the real issue here isn’t the spilled juice, or the ding in the wall, or whatever else they may or may not have done. The issue is trust. You want to know if they’re lying so you can help break the habit and guide them towards being honest with you. The goal is getting your kids to trust you over the long haul, so that you’ll have an honest, open relationship with them during their teenage years and beyond.