“I got some water on my pants when I washed my hands,” my four-year-old said. Never mind that the tell-tale signs of a peeing accident suggested that he was lying. Telling lies is normal and typically emerges during this age. But I still wanted to know the right way to handle his fibs and why kids lie in the first place.
Three- to five-year-olds grapple between reality and fantasy and lie to test those boundaries. Lying can even border on storytelling. My son talks about giants writing clouds and the latest antics of his stuffed animal, Ricky.
In these harmless cases, the best thing to do is to go with it. Encourage their imagination. They’re creating stories on the fly, while keeping the truth in the back of their minds.
Why kids lie and how to stop it
If not for tall tales and storytelling, why then do kids lie?
- Wishful thinking. Instead of, “I wish I hadn’t toppled over the plant,” kids will say, “I didn’t do it” as a way of wishing they hadn’t. It’s like their “command-Z” to undo what they just did.
- Not understanding. Kids will lie when they don’t always understand the situation. I’ve noticed my son will answer questions with lies rather than admit he doesn’t know.
- Getting attention. Kids will continue the actions that garner them the most attention, positive or negative. If your daughter gets attention when she lies, she’s continue spinning tales.
- Feeling important. Kids sometimes lie to bolster their self-esteem or feel like a big boy or big girl.
- Forgetting. Some kids tell lies because they forgot what they did. They really do think they ate all their dinner when they only took a few bites.
- Avoiding punishment. Lying seems like a way kids assume they’ll dodge consequences, anger, or disappointment.
What to do when kids lie
Kids lie as any adult would—for attention, to avoid punishment or to feel important. But sometimes it’s because of their age—forgetfulness, confusion, and a wild imagination.
Don’t bother asking, “Did you do [fill in the blank]?”
I’ve asked my son—knowing full well whether he did or not—”Did you [fill in the blank]?” Instead of setting kids up for lying or feeling guilty, show him how to resolve the issue. “Here’s a rag. Please help me clean up the spill.”
Show empathy when your child passes the blame on someone else
My son has a stuffed animal named Ricky, aka his alter ego responsible for his every misdeed. If we reprimand him for yelling when he’s not supposed to, he’ll respond with, “Remember when Ricky yelled really loud—like this—’aaaaaahh!!’ and he got in trouble?”
I can see why he would pass the blame onto someone (or something) else. He doesn’t want to assume the consequences, or perhaps feels guilty or embarrassed. Instead of being too quick to judge, empathize. “You didn’t want me to get mad at you, but I like it when you tell me that you did it.”
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Keep your words positive
Note the difference between “It’s bad to lie” vs “It’s important to tell the truth.” We don’t shame kids when we keep our words positive. And we don’t sacrifice authority and the importance of the message. Negativity can also lead them to label themselves as bad or encourage them to hide their misdeeds.
Aim for open communication where you base your relationship on safety and trust. I hope my kids will feel like they can come to me for anything, even if they’ve done something wrong.
Praise your child for telling the truth
Praise the behavior you value and would like to continue. When your child admits to have broken a DVD, praise him for owning up to his mistakes. “You weren’t supposed to play with the DVDs and I wish you hadn’t, but I’m glad you told me the truth.” You don’t approve of the misbehavior but can be glad he admitted his fault.
Work with your child to fix the mistake
If your child lies about a situation she can resolve, recruit her help in fixing the mistake. Ask her to fetch the rags and help wipe the water she spilled on the dining table. This will show her she can fix her mistakes without the need to lie.
Don’t get angry when your child misbehaves
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Easier said than done, right? But one of the main reasons kids lie is to avoid The Wrath of Mom. Sure, they don’t want to get in trouble, but they especially don’t want to see you upset at them.
Do your best to keep your temper under control to encourage your kids to tell the truth. If the consequence to telling the truth is you getting mad, how likely will they tell the truth the next time?
Instead, reassure your child you won’t get mad when he admits the truth. And stick to it. That doesn’t mean his actions won’t bear consequences, but you can give them calmly.
I don’t expect lying to go away any time soon, but I do want to confront the habit in a positive way. In the meantime, I assume “Ricky” will be doing more misdeeds around the house.
p.s. Check out The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, a children’s book all about the importance of honesty:
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Your Child from Interrupting and What to Do Instead
- The Benefits of Fostering Gratitude
- 10 Children’s Books about Making the World a Better Place
- Are You Responding Correctly when Your Kid Says a Bad Word?
- How to Raise a Kind Child
Tell me in the comments: What are your thoughts on why kids lie? What are some of the things your kids have lied about?