Why kids lie and what you can do about it
We all tell lies. At least sometimes. But nothing sends a parent into a spin quite like catching your child in a lie, right? As a society we tend to place a very high value on honesty. So when our kids lie, we can have pretty strong reactions. We worry that we are raising a dishonest, deceitful child. A tiny little sociopath with no moral compass. We worry that we are failing as parents because we haven’t instilled this trait in our children from a young age. We begin to question where we went wrong and may even wonder if there is something wrong with our child. But that’s not why kids lie.
There’s nothing wrong with your child. In fact, there are lots of things that are going right when kids begin to lie. Yes, it can be a good sign! The problem is that we view honesty as an issue of a morality. And for small children, it’s really not a moral issue at all. It’s actually an issue of safety. It’s also completely normal and adaptive.
Lying is developmentally appropriate
Lying is a normal part of growing up. It usually emerges in children at around the age of 3. And by age 4, most children – up to 80% – lie at least sometimes.
The fact that lying develops at around this age is no coincidence. In fact, it’s a good sign. It means that your child’s cognitive skills are developing as they should. Some studies even suggest that lying is a sign of intelligence in kids. That’s because lying requires children to understand that other people have different beliefs and thoughts than they do – something referred to as theory of mind. And as children begin to understand the way others think more and more, they begin to test out their new understanding – by telling lies.
5 reasons why kids lie
1. To experiment
Like with any new behaviour, kids want to test it out. They want to know what will happen if they lie – how you’ll respond, how it feels, whether it will work to their advantage. It’s not malicious, and it’s not a moral issue either. It’s just a way for children to test out a new theory and check what the limits are around it.
2. Because they don’t understand that reality is fixed
Very young children have a hard time telling the difference between reality and their imagination. Sometimes they truly believe something is true despite clear evidence to the contrary. Other times, they simply get carried away with an exciting story that engages their imagination – how fun! And other times, they say something is true because they really wish that it was, and they believe that they can wish things into reality.
3. To avoid getting into trouble
Kids lie to avoid punishment. The research is clear on this one. Children who are punished are more like to to tell lies in an attempt to avoid said punishment. Parents often believe that harsh consequences for lying are needed to really send a message to their child that honesty is important. But in reality, this is exactly the thing that makes it less likely your child will tell you the truth next time.
4. To avoid hurting someone’s feelings
Children also tell lies because they don’t want to hurt you. If they know you’re going to be upset or disappointed in them, children will try to cover up the truth to make you happy. Kids desperately want to please their parents and they will do whatever they can to make it happen. Including lying to you in the moment.
5. To gain approval from others
As children start to get older, they may lie in an attempt to gain approval or acceptance from others. Children may begin to embellish a little, or tell some tall tales in an attempt to fit in with a peer group. And if they believe that their acceptance anywhere – at home, at school, or with friends – is dependent on meeting certain expectations – then they may lie to keep up with those expectations too.
What can you do?
While lying is very common (and normal) in children, that doesn’t mean we want to encourage it. We still need to teach our children the value of honesty. So how do you respond to your child when they tell a lie? Well, that depends on the situation and what you believe the function of the lie is. Here are a few ideas for you.
If your child is very young, and they are engaging in magical thinking or telling fun, imaginary stories, there’s really nothing you need to do. This is normal childhood behaviour and will gradually come to an end as your child’s logical thinking skills develop. There is no need to tell your child that they are wrong, lecture them about telling lies, or try to convince them that what they believe isn’t real. This may create a sense of shame or make your child feel there is something wrong with them. After all, this kind of lie is not really a lie at all – just sweet, childhood innocence. So make the most of it while it lasts!
Be aware of your own lies
We often send mixed messages to kids about lying, and for young children, who are quite concrete thinkers, this can be really confusing! We prompt them to say thank you and pretend to like that gift that they really didn’t want. We tell grandma that we loved the casserole she cooked us when we really fed it to the dog. We write them notes excusing them from doing homework or for having a sick day when they really weren’t sick at all. And then we tell them there’s nothing more important than honesty.
Now, I’m not saying you need to completely ditch those white lies and start being brutally honest with everyone you meet. However, it’s important to remember that us adults understand that there are grey areas when it comes to lying. Children don’t necessarily understand these nuances yet, so be mindful of the message you’re sending your child.
Don’t put them in a position where they have no other choice but to lie
If your child has paint all over their hands, there’s really no need to ask them if it was them who got it on the wall. You already know they did. But by asking them, you put them in a difficult position where they they feel they have no choice but to protect themselves – and you – with a lie. When you question them, you begin the slippery descent into shame and blame, which only causes them to pull away from you and protect themselves further by holding firm to their lie. Instead, simply acknowledge the facts and validate the emotions underlying your child’s behaviour: “You really had fun painting that wall, huh?” Once that’s done, you can move onto problem solving.
Teach them skills
Sometimes kids lie because they lack the skills they need to manage a situation any other way. When you freak out about your child’s lie, you risk losing your child’s trust. And this makes it less likely they will confide in your or seek you out for support in the future. Instead, try to think about what skills your child needs to successfully navigate the situation, and focus on teaching them. Do they need social skills to help them navigate friendship difficulties? Are they lacking confidence? Are they lying about completing their homework because they are finding it too difficult? Do they need help with problem solving skills? When we teach lagging or missing skills, we reduce the need for children to lie by giving them a range of more appropriate actions to choose from.
Make it safe to tell the truth
Lying is ultimately a relationship issue. People lie to keep both themselves, and their relationships safe. And I’m not just talking about physical safety. Safety is about feeling emotionally and psychologically safe also. Free to be your authentic self within a relationship with someone else. It is about feeling truly seen, understood and accepted. And children – all people – will do whatever they can to get this need met.
Children will tell the truth when they feel safe to do so. When they feel physically, emotionally and psychologically safe, and when they are certain the relationship with YOU can withstand it. You must ensure it is safe for your child to tell the truth within your relationship. This means eliminating punishments and harsh consequences for lying and instead, celebrating honesty. It also means owning your own emotions and reactions so that your child feels safe and secure to express their own.
Increasing Relational Safety
If a child learns through their relationship with you that being themselves is unsafe, then they will hide who they really are. This is why kids lie. They will filter their thoughts, observations, feelings, and desires, in order to gain your acceptance. They will also lie in order to get their physical and emotional needs met – to create an emotional connection that they feel is otherwise lacking. And if they feel your emotions are their responibility to manage, then they will also lie to avoid disappointing you, causing you sadness, or making you angry. Because when they feel responsible for your emotions, your big feelings cause them to feel they’ve failed. And this leads to feelings of guilt and shame – which further perpetuate the cycle of lying.
So if you are at a loss right now and struggling to understand why your child continues to tell lies – the answer may actually be within you. If you can increase the safety within your relationship with your child, then the lying will stop. And as an added bonus, you will find yourself with a more authentic, meaningful, and emotionally connected relationship with your chid too!
And for more support building a connected, authentic relationship with your child be sure to join the waitlist for my mindful parenting membership, The Mindful Little Mama. Inside, you’ll get access to my 6 stage Mindful Parenting Pathway, a step by step framework for implementing mindful parenting in your home so you can build a calm, connected family and finally be the confident parent you’ve always wanted to be.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.