A developmental guide to how and why kids tell lies — and what you can do about it.
Children’s lies can be glaring. Like when you caught your little electronics engineer red-handed with a broken TV remote, and she said she didn’t do it. Or a bit blurry with omission. Like when your child’s teacher told you about the scuffle at school, but your little wrestler told you his day was fine. Lies can also be wild and imaginative. Like when your adult wannabe told his friends he’s already allowed to drive!
The truth is, lying is part of your child’s learning. Your little learner is trying new things: navigating conflict, exercising creativity and figuring out how to get what they want. In other words, stretching the truth is your child’s way of accomplishing a need. But with some guidance, you can help them build on that knowledge and use other methods to meet their goals.
But first, let’s look at the very normal ways that children twist the truth at different developmental stages and what those lies mean for their growth.
A child’s first lies begin when they are two or three years old. The very first lies will often be denying doing something, like eating the cookie or breaking the glass. But more than being dishonest, toddlers are showing you some important skills:
- Your toddler now understands that different people have different thoughts.
- Their social skills allow them to navigate conflict. For example, they may deny an action to get out of a difficult situation.
- Pretend play skills are developing. These skills will lead to other greater skills like empathy and diplomacy.
Children are able to imagine how another person might think. (This is sometimes called “perspective taking.”) Because your little learner can now consider what other people know or don’t know, their lies are more believable. And because their communication skills are more advanced (and you’ve tried explaining bigger concepts to them), they know the difference between a truth and a lie. They know lying is bad, but they also want to make you happy. And sometimes that means not telling the truth.
- While having the ability to guess what someone else is thinking is at the root of deception, it is also how children build effective communication and social skills.
- Being able to imagine what others feel and think means they can also understand and share those feelings. A child is capable of empathy with these skills.
Older children are capable of making up lies on purpose and with many intentions — and they can be really good at it too! But at the root you will find your child is still just trying to avoid getting in trouble. Their sense of self is also part of why children decide to tell lies. They now understand that other people can think of them as “good” or “bad”, and they want to be good.
- Children are developing their sense of self and how others perceive them.
Help them tell the truth!
You can help your child feel safe to tell the truth. While understanding how and why children tell lies is a great start, there are some things you can do to champion honesty at home. Here are some things you can do to help your little learner value honesty:
Set an example.
You said you couldn’t volunteer for the child care cookie sale because of a “family thing,” but your little learner knows there is no such commitment. When your trick-or-treater asked where the Halloween candy went, you said that you didn’t know. But the evidence in your bedroom trash bin says otherwise. You get the picture: Children are learning from you, and they will remember what you did when faced by conflict.
Praise their honesty.
She came clean. She told you that she did push Fernando at child care. And it’s true, he also took the coins from the table. Now, instead of focusing on the offense, try praising the fact that your little learner told the truth. Saying, “I know it was hard to tell me, but I am happy you told me the truth.” Instead of showing anger and disappointment, you are letting your child know they can trust you with problems. Ask your child, “If you could do it again, what would you change?” Or “How will you say ‘I’m sorry’ to Fernando? Let’s practice.” While our gut instinct might tell us we should show anger or disappointment, this type of response can lead to more hiding and lying. And while explaining the importance of telling the truth is noble, research shows kids are more likely to do what makes you happy.
“I know it was hard to tell me, but I am happy you told me the truth.”
Don’t tempt them to lie.
Asking “Did you wash your hands?” when you know they’ve been playing instead of washing makes it likely that your child will say what you want to hear. Instead of asking questions that set them up, try getting to the point. Asking, “How long will it take you to wash your hands?,” shows your little one you know what’s going on. It also allows them to save face and remember to complete their task.
Get to the bottom of it.
Sometimes children don’t understand the difference between a truth and a lie. If a story seems too far-fetched to be true, they might just be reveling in the attention. Additionally, lying is the easiest way to deal with demands, like chores or behavior expectations. If you sense that lying is becoming a habit, try talking to your child. Tell them why you think telling the truth is important.
Try these conversation starters:
- “What is make-believe?” Or “How will others feel if they don’t know we are speaking in make-believe?“
- “How different would our family be if we didn’t tell the truth?” Use examples: “If I say that I went to the groceries, but I stay home and read magazines, what do you think could happen?“
- “What are some things we can do instead of telling lies?“
Do you think something else could be behind your child’s lies? Ask for help. Reach out to the other grown-ups in your child’s life, like their care provider or doctor. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel in moving forward with discussing honesty at home.