Read what Deb from Jersey has to share with other parents on this topic.
Children lie for different reasons at different ages. Very young
children may not yet be able to always distinguish fantasy from reality.
When Mikey spins a fantastic story about a pillow that flies around his
room, he is not actually attempting to deceive. More likely, Mikey has a
very active imagination and cannot always tell the difference between
what he imagined and what really happened. Children this age may also
appear to lie because they have honestly forgotten
things. When a 2 year-old is accused of putting a roll of toilet paper
in the toilet and she claims she didn't do it, she may simply not
remember doing it, especially if it wasn't discovered for several hours.
At around the age of 5 or 6 children start to develop a more consistent
understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality and are less
likely to insist on the truth of their imaginings. Around this age, a
child begins to develop a conscience and understand that certain
behaviors may disappoint his or her parents. He or she may also begin to
experience feelings of guilt associated with misdeeds. For the first
time, the child may construct a lie in an attempt to avoid punishment
and/or disapproval. Children this age may also tell fibs or exaggerate
extensively in order to get their parents' attention.
By the age of 7 or 8, most children have learned to tell the difference
between fantasy and reality and can usually be counted on to tell the
truth. The most common reasons for children to lie at this age are to
avoid being punished, or to avoid doing something unpleasant like
emptying the trash. Children may also begin to grasp the concept of
polite social lying around this age. They may pretend to like the
knitted socks that Grandma gave them for their birthday, or compliment a
friend's new haircut even though they think it looks ridiculous.
Altruistic lies to protect others from harm may be told as well. Lies at
this age may also be a cry for help. Children who are very fearful of
disappointing their parents and are feeling overwhelmed by school or
some other area of their lives, may lie in an attempt to deal with this
By adolescence, lying begins to take on a new significance and parents
are likely to become more alarmed by the lies their adolescents tell.
Adolescents clearly understand the difference between fantasy and
reality and are aware of the possible consequences of telling lies. They
have also become better at it! However, not all lies that an adolescent
tells should be taken as a sign that he or she is up to something
forbidden. Adolescents may lie simply to protect their privacy, to
establish their independence, to avoid embarrassment, or to spare
another's feelings. Of course, they may also lie to avoid punishment or
doing chores, or to try to get something that they think they may not be
able to get by telling the truth.
What Can Parents Do?
The first thing you can do is to teach honesty in the home and be aware
of your own standards for lying. In some homes polite social lies are
more acceptable than in others. Some parents may inadvertently promote
lying by asking their children to lie about their age, or tell a caller
that Mom or Dad isn't home. Be aware that children will have a very
difficult time seeing the difference between these types of lies and
lies they may tell to you. Modeling honest behavior in the home as well
as setting up an environment in which it is easy to be truthful may be
two of the strongest lie prevention strategies.
Here are a few tips:
- Whenever possible, keep your word. Always explain and apologize if
you must break a promise.
- If you do find yourself lying in front of your child, be sure to
talk about it with him or her and explain your reasons and values surrounding
the lie. If you made a mistake by telling a lie, admit it.
- Do not expect young children to understand the subtle differences between
"white lies" and more serious lies.
- Do not tell your children lies to promote compliance (e.g.,
telling them that shots won't hurt or that going to the dentist will be fun). Praise
truth-telling, especially when it was likely difficult to do.
- Assume family members are telling the truth unless you have reason
to suspect otherwise. Don't overburden your child with too many rules and expectations.
The more rules there are, the more likely they are to get broken, and the more
likely the child may feel the need to lie to avoid punishment.
- Involve your children in developing the rules.
It is easier to abide by a rule that you had some role in developing.
Even children raised in the most truthful and honest of households will
still lie on occasion. When this happens, it is important to remain calm
and remember that the lie is not a personal attack, so don't take it as
such or give into anger. Review the reasons why a child might lie at
any given age and respond accordingly. What a child is trying to hide by
lying may be much more important than the lie itself.
Tell your child that you love her, even when she lies. She's not a bad
child; rather, it's just her behavior that's unacceptable.
Make sure any consequences for lying are kept separate from the
consequences for whatever the lie was designed to conceal. And be
careful not to overreact. Remember that children may lie to avoid
punishment. Excessive or irrational punishments may backfire. The
greater the fear of punishment, the less likely your child is going to
"fess up" the next time.
Make it very easy for your child to tell the truth and give him a chance
to confess. Don't stage a courtroom drama and try to force a
If your child tells tall tales or lies to get your attention, don't
accuse the child of being a liar, but don't pretend like you're not
aware of it, either. Make it clear that you don't believe that he ran a
mile in less than three minutes, but that you love him anyway. If your
child tells a tall tale to someone else and you witness it, don't point
it out in front of the other person. Wait until you are alone with your
child to discuss it.
Don't accuse. "I wonder how this milk got spilled -- I wish someone
would clean it up," is more likely to get an honest response than
"Sarah, did you spill this milk?"
Don't try to set your child or adolescent up to tell you a lie when you
have discovered the truth. Asking "Where were you Friday night?" when
you know Susie was at a party you had forbidden her to attend is a form
of dishonesty and deceit just the thing you are trying to avoid! It
also encourages Susie to lie, giving her more practice at the very thing
you don't want. Further, this tactic places the emphasis on the lie as
opposed to the behavior, which may be the more serious problem. If Susie
hadn't gone to the party in the first place, there would be no need to
Fables are a great way to teach values to younger children. The Boy Who Cried "Wolf" may be especially effective.
Be sure adolescents are given a fair amount of privacy. This will lessen
the likelihood that they will lie just to protect what privacy they
How Can You Encourage Truthfulness?
Remember that one of the main motivators for lying is fear of
punishment. A lie may feel like the lesser of two evils, and it may
improve the chances that the child will get away with whatever
transgression they have committed. (And, face it, sometimes they will!)
Severe punishment for lying may reinforce the fear of punishment and
increase the likelihood of future lying rather than decrease it.
Additionally, while the parent may be trying to give the message "You
are being punished because you lied", the child is more likely thinking
"I'm being punished because I got caught." The child resolves to get
better at lying to avoid being caught in the future. Instead of severe
punishment, consider a light punishment or a reprimand, and promote the
natural and/or logical consequences of dishonest behavior. For example,
it may be appropriate that a child who has repeatedly lied about getting
her homework done be required to bring a note home from her teacher on a
daily basis until trust is restored. This consequence makes sense to
the child in light of the behavior you are trying to change.
Additionally, promoting the natural or logical consequences of dishonest
behavior requires the child to take responsibility for his own
behavior. Logical or natural consequences are directly related to the
problem behavior and do not carry a moral judgement about the child.
Here are few more things to consider when deciding how to deal with a
child who has lied:
It is often more effective to tell children how you really feel about
their lie than to punish them for it. An honest statement like "I'm
really hurt that you lied to me" is likely to have more impact on future
lying than a week without television. Further, emphasizing the effect
of the lie on others promotes the development of an internalized sense
of morality. Help the child explore the effects that lying has on others
and on the child's relationships.
Don't make a decision about the consequences of a lie in the heat of the
moment. You can let you child know that you are very upset, but that
you need time to think about what the consequences should be. However,
don't make your child wait for days in dreaded anticipation as you make
your "decision". This is just another form of dishonesty and will not do
anything to strengthen the shaken bond of trust between you and your
Make sure that the consequences for lying don't drag out for so long
that your child forgets what brought the consequence on in the first
place. A child needs another chance. Be sure that she knows she will get
one. However, if the lying is repeated often, it may make sense to
extend the length of time before the child is allowed to try again.
When Is Lying a Serious Problem?
Isolated lies here and there don't usually indicate a serious problem.
However, when lying becomes habitual or compulsive, and is used as a
major strategy for dealing with difficult situations there is cause for
concern. Chronic lying may be just a bad habit that a child needs help
breaking. However, it may also be a sign that the child can not tell
right from wrong. This may especially be the case if your child does not
appear to have any remorse about lying. Lying that is accompanied by
behaviors such as fighting, stealing, inflicting cruelty, skipping
school, or cheating may also be a sign of more serious problems such as
conduct disorder or a learning disability. Children with biological
conditions such as ADHD may also find it more difficult to control lying
behavior. Children may also lie to cover up more serious problems like
Substance Abuse. Finally, when older children or adolescents tell tall
tales, and overly exaggerate and embellish everyday occurrences, it may
signal a serious need for attention. In any of the above cases, seek
help from a professional trained to deal with children and/or
Link to related articles
Does Your Child Lie?
Lying - How it begins in Children