Heart to Heart with Adele: When your child becomes a Pinocchio


Dear Adele,

My husband and I are getting quite concerned because our school-aged children seem to be getting better and better at duping us, by lying. We both really value integrity, and are aware that it is not all that common anymore. We need a bit of direction about detecting our children’s lies, knowing how to correct them and strategies for encouraging them to be truthful in their dealings with other people. Pinocchio behavior seems to be happening more and more frequently, and we think we will soon need training as a CIA officer or an Ottawa police interrogator if it keeps escalating! Can you help us please?

Sincerely, Parents of Pinocchios


Dear Parents of Pinocchios,

Your children’s behavior, while upsetting to you, is a sign that they are growing up, believe it or not. Everyone lies to some degree and everyone has been lied to whether they know it or not. In fact,” Lying has become so much the accepted norm, that people lie even when it would be simpler to tell the truth.” (Bell Hooks).

There are many different kinds of lies which adults tell, and which their children learn to tell as well:

Lies that are an obvious denial of the facts and are black or white are commonplace. For example, a child insists he or she did not steal a cookie from the cookie jar, when the crumbs on his lips bear witness to the fact that he has just consumed a chocolate chip delight.

Lies of omission occur when a person tells a lie which is totally true in the spoken facts, but something is left out of the story which would could or does change the message. For example, a husband tells his wife he is late coming home from work because there was a lot of traffic on the freeway. He fails, however, to mention he stopped for a glass of wine at a bar with a colleague, before motoring on home.

Lies of exaggeration occur when a person tells a story and embellishes the truth, leaving the impression that the person or situation is far better or for worse than it really was. For example, a child may tell his parents that the teacher in his classroom was yelling and screaming at him because he forgot to hand in his assignment. The child’s intention is to get the parents upset at the teacher’s behavior, rather than have them focus on the fact he neglected to hand his assignment in on time. The teacher may have admonished the child appropriately, in reality, while trying to help him understand the importance of meeting one’s commitments.

Little white lies are common and usually designed to save embarrassment or make the recipient of them feel comfortable with some negative situation. For example, a wife may ask her husband if her new red dress makes her look fat. Unless the husband wants to sleep on the couch for a week, he would likely choose to say something diplomatic like, “I love you in red darling! You look amazing in that dress.” You note he fails to answer the question about her looking fat, even though he might actually think the tightness of the dress or the slinky fabric on his wife’s slightly full figure, actually does make her look fatter than she would like.

Sometimes lies occur because of a person’s perception of a situation rather than the reality of it. For example, parents may think their child is very bright and working hard at school. When he brings home and assignment that is barely a pass, the parents may tell friends that the teacher is not very good, fails to motivate their very bright child and is the biggest problem with the child’s lack of success in that subject. The reality of the situation may be that the child is average in ability and somewhat on the lazy side, as far as the teacher is concerned. Despite all her efforts to motivate him, his grades are barely a pass.

Sometimes lies occur because of a desire to influence. Politicians are often guilty of this when they support and endorse a candidate for election who is with their party, despite the fact they really don’t like that person at all. They choose to lie and say everyone should recognize what a wonderful person the nominee is and tell electorate to vote for him or her

Dr. David Snyder suggests that there are three types of brains operating in the human. The first is the primal brain, the Paleozoic Cortex which controls the primal drives for survival including sexuality, food and social needs. This part of the brain doesn’t lie. The second is the emotional brain, which usually doesn’t lie either. The third part is the rational brain, the Neo Cortex which lies to alleviate stress. It controls the little voice in the head and may not have much to do with reality.

Dr. Snyder suggests that people lie to satisfy their primal drives for a payoff or to avoid a penalty. We want to believe lies as well, for the emotional payoff to satisfy primal needs. He says we lie to ourselves constantly by deleting information, omitting information, distorting information, streamlining information, filtering and sorting information. Our need to belong to the group can be so important that we will lie so as not to be ostracized from that group, which can be considered the equivalent of extinction or death.

In psychology, and understanding of neuro linguistic programming, assists lie detection professionals in spotting a liar. Experts in this area, like Dr. Snyder, have learned to understand the nonverbal world of communication and become highly adept at determining when a human person is lying. Knowing what to look for in the body language reveals, with a high degree of accuracy when a person is telling a lie, versus telling the truth. Body language cues, when seen in clusters are extremely accurate, because the unconscious mind always answers first. The seven core emotions can be read like a book by the skilled observer and is uncontrollable by the human.

The Henson 15 might be helpful for you to learn about, and have been described as the “Bullshit Detector.”  I will list a few of them to give the idea:

1: The freeze: when a person is lying their arms and legs stop moving hoping to attract less attention.

2: The nod: a nod is connected to the emotion a person is feeling, so in a story narrative the nod should be congruent with the message.

3: The distance: when a person is lying, he stops touching the other person or moves further away from the person to whom he is lying.

4: The overreaction: when a person is lying, he often gest quite indignant and louder in an effort to get the other person to stop questioning.

5: The stare and the flutter: a good liar will often look you in the eyes staring, but his eyelids will be fluttering and his pupils will dilate.

6: The block: the liar will put something between you and himself such as his arms getting folded in front of his body, a finger rises and touches  his nose, or an object such as a coat or even a coffee cup or wineglass gets placed  on the table across from where you sit.

7: Speech changes: any deviation from the normal speech pattern is significant, such as the rate of speech, the volume of speech, the pitch and the tone of speech, all of which change when a person is lying.

8: The eyes: squinting indicates increased cognitive processing. When the eyes look to the left, the brain is accessing the memory and when the eyes look to the right, the brain is making something up or creating something.

You might want to read up on this subject further, so that both of you can use some of the Hansen 15 to detect deceptive narratives in your Pinocchios. Dealing with the “Why” of their need to tell lies should probably be the salient feature of your interventions, Parents.

When you are having a discussion with a child and trying to determine truth, it is suggested that you do not accuse a child of lying. Try to get a conversation going about the situation from his point of view. Try to seem kind, nice and understanding. Avoid the aggressive, in-your-face approach, when searching for the truth in a story where some lies are likely present. People who are lying look for support to back them up. They want to be accepted. With the softer approach, the liar’s guard goes down and information is often freely volunteered. Humans are hardwired to like their own words, coming out of someone else’s mouth so try repeating your child’s phrases back to him with active listening techniques. Work hard to give your child the feeling that you are on his side and that whether he did something wrong or whether he did not, is not your major concern. Leave him feeling that you totally understand how everything went down.

 I suggest you focus your discussions with your children around their perceptions and feelings of situations, and why they behaved the way they did. Try to make them comfortable with the fact that it is important to you that they speak their truth, even if they are fearful of what they have to say and scared that you will be very upset with them. Try hard to reward them for telling the truth so that they will do it again, and again. Try to consequence the lies, and assure them that if they tell the truth you will work hard with them to figure out a resolution to problems and guide them to make better decisions next time.

 Humble the Poet, in his book “Unlearn: 101 Life Lessons without the Bullshit” writes,

“The only person who has to live with you for your whole life is you, so speak the truth that allows you to feel good about your existence. The truth may not set you free, but it will teach you a whole lot about the cages you’re in.”

 I conclude with some quotes about integrity that you might like to share with your children:

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Mark Twain

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Frederick Nietzsche

“The truth doesn’t cost anything, but a lie could cost you everything”. Kushanowi Zoom

“A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth” Aesop

“A lie keeps growing and growing, until it’s as plain as the nose on your face”. Heart Disney quotes

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: Jacqueline Macou, Pixabay