Children, of all ages, lie for a variety of reasons. In fact, it is so common that a study from the University of Waterloo found that 96 percent of young children lie at some point. Children are trying to figure out how to act in the world, the difference between real and pretend, and how to deal with conflict. Their developmental stage plays a role in how and why children lie, and being aware of this can help us, as adults, respond to lies in a calm, understanding way.
Until about three years old, toddlers who lie are generally:
- Engaged in fantasy play
- denying misbehavior that they think will “magically” go away if they lie about doing it
- Making an honest mistake about what’s happening
- Are worried about upsetting or disappointing a parent
- Are starting to realize you don’t know everything, and that gives them some wiggle room for the truth
- Really don’t remember the whole story (selective recall)
Preschoolers know the difference between truths and lies, but wanting to please their caregivers sometimes trumps telling the truth.
- Young children are figuring out the difference between real and pretend. Sometimes, we encourage “pretend” like when we talk about the tooth fairy. While encouraging imagination is important, your child may sometimes get confused about what is real and not.
- They may want to make the story more exciting – their imagination is working overtime
- They may wish they hadn’t done what they did, so they say they didn’t do it (impulse control)
Elementary and middle school
As kids get older, their understanding of lying gets clearer but the reasons behind lying become more complex. Older children are also capable of coming up with more advanced lies—and sound sincere when telling it. They may rehearse it in their head enough that they are starting to really believe it. They have more words and are starting to understand how others think.
- Embarrassment or fear of mistakes
- Your child may not know how to handle making a mistake and lie to cover it up. They may fear getting in trouble or don’t want to disappoint you. Sometimes they feel worried about the lie itself and create more lies.
- Whether it’s chores or homework, sometimes children lie to avoid something they don’t want to do.
- To be “Cool”
- For many kids, making friends and fitting in is challenging. They may lie to impress other kids or fit in.
- They may tell a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
- For Attention
- Your child may want to seek attention with a lie or even want to see how you react. “We saw two lions in the park today” sounds more interesting that we walked by a cat on the way to the park. You might respond by saying something like, “That’s a great story! You have a good imagination.” This will encourage imagination without encouraging the lie.
- Fear of Punishment
- Your child may lie if they worry the truth will bring a punishment. Children who are bullied or abused may lie for fear they will be treated worse if “they tell.”
How you can respond:
- For toddlers and preschoolers, encourage imagination and help your child start to distinguish between real and pretend. For example, you and your child can pretend to be firefighters and then later go to your local fire station to meet a real firefighter.
- Prompt them to tell the whole story.
- Give your child positive feedback when they tell the truth. Give them opportunities to distinguish between real and not real.
- Praise your child for owning up to the truth.
- Create clear rules about lying and be consistent about keeping them.
- Be a good role model! Be honest about your mistakes.
- If your child is trying to fit in, find ways to raise their self-esteem. Help them come up with concrete things they can do about the situation.
- Give unconditional love. Let your child know that even when they make mistakes, you still love them.
- Emphasize the importance of honesty in your family.
There is a balance between feeling bad, guilty, or shameful about being caught in a lie and then moving to take responsibility to fix it. When a child tells an untruth for whatever reason, call attention to it in a matter-of-fact way and give the child the opportunity to tell the truth.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).
Triple P – Positive Parenting Program
Are you interested in receiving more parenting advice? Triple P Online – Positive Parenting Program could be for you! This online parenting program allows you to take a parenting class in the comfort of your own home! Triple P Online now includes a guide for parenting during COVID-19.
If you or your child are on Oregon Health Plan (OHP), you can get Triple P Online for free by filling out the form below. If you are not on OHP, financial assistance may be available to participate in the program. A staff person from Parenting Now will send you an access code within 24 hours and you’ll be able to start using the program right away! For more information about the program visit the LaneKids Triple P homepage.