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The Honest Truth About Why Kids Lie

WHY KIDS LIE & How to get them to tell the truth

On a pretty regular basis I receive worrisome calls from parents who are mortified because their child is telling lies.   The reason this is such a common occurrence is that ALL kids do it!  But all lying isn’t the same and all “lies” aren’t even lies.  The most helpful things you can do when you have a little one who is not always being honest is 1) understand why they are doing it and 2) have some strategies to respond that encourage honesty without putting your child on the defensive. 

Since your children probably lie (just like mine do) I thought it might be helpful to start by shedding some light on this behavior. The reasons children lie are the exact same reasons we all sometimes tell a fib, stretch the truth or tell a lie: we feel threatened, are scared of the consequences of telling the truth or just think lying will make things easier.  Many times with young children though there can be a developmental or social reason for the "lie".  

When a toddler or preschooler tells a lie it can be helpful to remember that developmentally they are functioning in a world that is very confusing and that they thrive by feeling connected to you.  So it makes sense that when we ask “Did you do break this?” or “Where did the candy go?” in a certain tone they might deny their actions to maintain the connection and feelings of safety and security. 

Older children between the ages of 4 and 7 have a very strong imagination and often have a difficult time separating their fantasy world from the real world. Their fantasy worlds and friends can feel very real to children this age and can contribute to confusion that sounds like a lie.  Our role with children this age is to help them determine when it is appropriate to tell tall tales and when not to, without squashing their creativity.

Older school age children 6 to 10 years old become more morally mature and understand what it means to tell a lie. Older school age children think that rules created by authority figures, such as parents or teachers, are absolute because they think more concretely.  It is not until they are a bit older that their thinking is more flexible or abstract and they have the ability to see how rules can be flexible and used selectively.  Kids age 6-10 are also concerned about the approval of authority figures and want to uphold truth and justice. Many times they begin to monitor others to ensure justice and fairness prevail.

There is a lot you can do with your own behavior that will encourage your child to tell the truth. A few things to be mindful of are: 1) what you are modeling, 2) showing unconditional love and 3) reinforcing that mistakes are no big deal and are wonderful opportunities for learning.  

First and foremost you are modeling and your kids are watching you ALL the time.   So be sure to model the behavior you want to see in your children.   A personal example of confronting the need to model the behavior that I want to see in my children was when I was paying for our family to board the local ferry the other day.  It would have been very easy for me to say my 7-year-old was 6 to get a discount, but I knew he was listening and that being an example of honesty was far more important than saving $12.  We actually discussed the choice we made with our kids so they would recognize the importance of honesty and also model our values.   It all goes back to that age old saying of:  “If you are going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk!” 

Showing unconditional love and reinforcing that mistakes are opportunities for learning and encourage our children to view their mistakes as something to embrace and not be afraid or ashamed of.  When I sense that my child might not tell me the truth or has already started backing themselves in a corner I simply remind them that I love them no matter what and that this can be a great learning opportunity.  This sets the tone and allows for safety in sharing something that they may already regret or embarrassed about.  The more we reframe in this way, the more they will trust that being honest is really the best policy.

What can you do when something has happened (or hasn't happened) and there is an opportunity for lying?

1. Be thoughtful about how you ask questions.  

If you ask “Did you clean up your toys?” most children’s response is “yes” because they don't want to disappoint a valued authority figure/parent.  Alternatively, making a statement and following up with a question such as“I noticed the toys are still on the floor.  What is your plan to get it cleaned up?” can feel safer and elicit a more honest and cooperative response.

2. Help your children find solutions through problem-solving, coaching or offering choices. 

Here are a few simple questions that you might try out:  “What do you need to do to get the toys picked up?” or “Is there anything getting in the way of getting all the toys picked up before dinner?” or offer some choices “Do you want to pick up the toys yourself or would you like me to help?”

3. Call it out without attacking or blaming and focus on your own feelings. 

Instead of “Why are you are lying!?” or “You are not being honest!” try “Wow, I don't feel like you are being completely honest with me.  Is there a reason you might now feel like you can tell me the truth right now?”

If we begin our interactions with anger or accusations, we are likely going to get a lie in return.  There is a lot we can do as parents to encourage honesty and it is always helpful to acknowledge that lying isn’t the sign of a future felon, it is simply something we all do when we are in a place of judgment or fear and for some children is developmentally appropriate.   By focusing on our own behavior and how we talk with our children everyone wins!   

Wants some tips on how to approach things when your child actually has to own what they have done and apologize? You can read about how to get kids to say sorry in the blog post Liar, Liar Pants on Fire: Making Kids Say Sorry When They Don’t Actually Mean It. Get some quick tips here:

This article originally appeared in ParentMap Magazine in July 2014.