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Traditional wooden Pinocchio toy.
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How to Teach Your Kids to Spot a Lie

Mar 21, 2016

Most parents try to teach their kids to tell the truth. But what about the tough truth that some people tell lies?

How can parents help kids to recognize a lie when they see it—and protect themselves?

At any age, says deception expert Renee Ellory (yes, that's really her job!), it’s key to listen not just to what people say, but what they do. Research has shown that in all cultures, people share seven universal facial expressions. And even when we’re trying to hide an emotion, our faces, or our body language, can tell a truth we’d rather hide.

Elementary age kids, Ellory says, are naturally great at reading people. In fact, in the classes on deception she teaches, the kids of her adult students often score much higher than their parents at reading non-verbal cues. Parents can keep kids from losing those native skills by giving them the vocabulary to understand what they instinctively know, and it might not hurt to have some fun with quizzes like this from Greater Good.

Middle school kids, says Ellory, can learn to be on the lookout for lies. But first they have to discard a lot of the conventional wisdom on how to spot a lie. “Honest people get nervous just like liars,” says Ellory. The best way to spot deception, according to Ellory: any difference between what a person says aloud and their nonverbal cues. “If someone tells me they went to the store today, then shrugs, it’s inconsistent,” Ellory says. And if a child sees an inconsistency, she says, parents should encourage them to explore it. “Don’t write it off. Don’t excuse it. Never explain an inconsistency away.”

High school kids, Ellory says, should be encouraged to act on what they see, especially in the face of peer pressure. “Never let someone doubt your intuitive sense,” Ellory says. And if kids are picking up on inconsistency or deception, “take actions to make yourself safe. Don’t let peer pressure sway you.”

At any age, Ellory says, “kids are very vulnerable to doubting themselves. And that’s when they get into trouble.” So parents can protect kids, and help them protect themselves, by letting them know that they always have the right to say no, even to an adult, and to seek help. And by reminding kids that, whether they’re with friends or strangers, they should keep an eye out for nonverbal cues, and “trust their instincts at all times.”

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