The first time a parent catches their child in a lie, it’s enough to make their heart sink. It doesn’t matter if it’s about a broken plate on the floor or the candy they’ve so clearly just snuck and ate; most mothers and fathers want to raise children with integrity. And when kids are dishonest, it’s easy to feel like you’ve failed to instill an essential core value in your child.
But here’s the good news: Lying is part of a child’s normal development and is, in fact, common among young children. It’s how parents respond to it that will teach the importance of honesty and how to apply it later in life. We’ll share some ways to address lying when it happens and what to do when dishonesty becomes a real problem.
Why do kids lie?
Little kids are unaware of the moral implications of lying. That’s because it’s often hard for them to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary when they’re young—and they want to please you.
“The line between fantasy and reality is a bit murkier for [children] than it might be for [adults],” says Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and mother of three.
She adds that children will tell a lie any time they think telling the truth will get them in trouble. They see lying as a way to stay close to their parents, ensuring their biological survival and psychological security, which are necessary for a child to grow and thrive.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, our children need to feel safe with us, which means that they need to feel that we want them around and that we love them,” she says. “If telling the truth will make them feel ashamed and alone, they feel compelled to lie to preserve feeling good at the moment.”
What should you do when your child lies?
As stated above, it’s difficult for young children to discern between right and wrong, and punishing them for acting out of fear could lead to even more lying down the road. For example, when a kid knocks down another child’s block tower and insists they didn’t do it, Kennedy recommends that instead of trying to catch them in a lie or accusing them of being dishonest, try listening to them to rebuild trust:
“Tell them: ‘Oh, you didn’t knock it down. If someone did, and I know it isn’t you, I guess something happened to make that child push their sibling’s tower down. I wonder what that child must have been feeling. If you find out who that child is, could you tell them that I won’t be upset? There won’t be a punishment. I just want to know what’s going on so that we can avoid that happening again.’”
There are likely difficult emotions beneath a child’s unwanted behavior. If a kid believes their parents are interested in what they’re feeling on the inside, then they’re more likely to tell the truth. Kennedy uses the example of when an older sibling strikes their younger brother and lies about it. By sending them to their room instead of understanding why the incident happened, they’ll believe the parents only care about what’s going on externally and won’t see them as a good child. Parents shouldn’t condone the lying or the hitting, but instead, attempt to figure out why they lashed out.
In some cases, the child could be lying about what happened between them and their sibling to get attention. In cases like this, they’re playing the victim to get what they need.
“That child is going to be less likely to lie as they’ve learned that their parents see them as a good child, and they are willing to hear about the more complex feelings under the behavior,” Kennedy says.
Then there is that moment every parent experiences: One parent tells a child they can’t do something, then the child tells the other parent that they could, such as when a kid tells dad that mom said they could play on the iPad when mom actually told them no. Kennedy says this isn’t about manipulating parents, but is about the child struggling to regulate their disappointment over less screen time.
“The lying happens to avoid the distress of wanting and not having,” she explains. “Instead of getting upset that they are trying to fool you, discuss with them that you understand they must find it hard to hear no, and that they must have been very disappointed.”
What happens when lying goes too far?
If this approach to trying to understand why a child is lying doesn’t actually curb their dishonesty, it’s time to inform children that there will be repercussions for their actions. Per Dr. Matthew Rouse, a psychologist at Child Mind Institute, the punishment doesn’t have to be excessive, but it should address the lie as well as what they were lying about. For example, if a teenager claims they’ve been doing their homework and they haven’t, they should be punished for their dishonesty and required to complete their work.
But Rouse also notes that children should know that telling the truth reduces the punishment, such as when a teenager lies about going to a party but later calls a guardian for a ride home because they’re intoxicated. It’s a fine line to walk when a child has lied about where they were, but then did the right thing by not driving drunk. Parents can let kids know that there will be a reduction in their punishment because of their ultimate honesty.
How to make honesty a value
Columnist Dr. Carol Brady told Child Mind Institute that parents should let a child know that perfection isn’t an expectation. Brady suggests a “truth check,” in which after a child has lied, a parent gives them a few minutes to reconsider their answer.
Parents also could say something along the lines of: “I’m going to ask you a question, and maybe you’re going to tell me something I don’t really want to hear. But remember, your behavior is not who you are. I love you no matter what, and sometimes people make mistakes. So I want you to think about giving me an honest answer.”
Brady doesn’t recommend this method for a chronic liar, but it could go a long way in establishing the importance of telling the truth and having integrity.