The Honest Truth: Why Kids Lie, and What You Can Do About It

Often there's a developmental or social reason for the lie

On a pretty regular basis, we receive worrisome calls from parents who are mortified because their child is telling lies. The reason this is such a common occurrence is because all kids do it. 

But, all lying is not the same, and all "lies" are not 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

2. Have some strategies to respond that encourage honesty without putting your child on the defensive.

Because 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, we are scared of the consequences of telling the truth, or we just think lying will make things easier.

However, many times with young children there is also a developmental or social reason for the lie.

Tiny fibbers

Developmentally, toddlers and preschoolers are living in a world that is very confusing. They are just beginning to understand that they are actually a separate person from their primary caregiver. They thrive on connection and feel safe and secure when there is connection with the significant adults in their lives. Their lies often are motivated from the fear that the connection might get broken or lost.

Younger children (pre-k–kindergarten) have very vivid imaginations 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.

Pinnochio grows up

Older school-age children (first through fifth grades) are becoming more morally mature and understand what it means to tell a lie. They tend to think that rules created by authority figures, such as parents or teachers, are absolute because they think more concretely. As they grow their thinking becomes more flexible, or abstract, and they have the ability to see how the rules can be used selectively. Elementary-school children are also concerned with the approval of authority figures as well as upholding the truth and ensuring justice.

There is a lot you can do with your own behavior that will dissuade your child from lying. A few things to be mindful of are:

1. What you are modeling?

2. Show unconditional love

3. Reinforce that mistakes are no big deal and are wonderful opportunities for learning

4. Ask questions that create safety and invite honesty

5. Focus on solutions and problem-solving

6. Share how you are feeling without blame.

How you react matters

First and foremost, you are modeling behavior 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 recently. 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: "If you are going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk!"

Showing unconditional love and reinforcing that mistakes are opportunities for learning encourages our children to view their mistakes as something to embrace and not be afraid or ashamed of. When I sense that my children might not be honest 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.

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 for the child and elicit a more honest and cooperative response.

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?"
  • "Is there anything getting in the way of getting all the toys picked up before dinner?"
  • "Do you want to pick up the toys yourself, or would you like me to help?"

Call it out without attacking or blaming, and try focusing 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 not 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.

For some children, lying is developmentally appropriate, which is important to keep in mind when your little one is telling a half-truth or white lie.

But more importantly, if we focus on our own behavior and how we talk with our children, truth and honesty will inevitably prevail!

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