Has something like this happened in your home? You yell to your child across the house, “Have you brushed your teeth?” They reply, “Yes, I did.” You know, for a fact, that they have not brushed their teeth. You heard them playing in their room instead of brushing their teeth. You’re a bit shocked. “Why did my child just lie to me?” you wonder quietly.
The first time a child lies can be disconcerting to any parent. Most of us think of ourselves as honest people, and we try to model that for our children. Despite our efforts, sometimes our children still lie. Why is that? Delving into the developmental trajectory of children’s early years helps us answer this question.
A Developmental Understanding of Lying
If you have a child around the age of 4–5 years, you may notice they begin to lie about little things⏤brushing their teeth, taking a toy from a sibling, etc. Many of us probably react with dismay and even anger. We begin to worry that we are not raising a child who values honesty. In reality, this type of lying in young children often has more to do with their stage of development than their moral sensibilities. Research shows us that it’s about this age that children begin to understand the thoughts and perspectives of others. They begin to realize that their thoughts and feelings may differ from others’⏤a concept called the Theory of Mind. Children do not have the cognitive maturity to grasp this concept until they are 3–4 years old, and thus do not lie. Toddlers, for example, generally think that everyone thinks and feels the same way they do. You can see evidence of this in simple interactions. For instance, if you ask a 2-year-old what your favorite color is, they will often report their favorite color as the answer.
While the development of the Theory of Mind is fascinating and invaluable in children, it is often a precursor to children learning to lie. When you consider it, lying is a perfect example of a test of the child’s ability to understand another person’s perspective. When a child lies about brushing their teeth, for example, they are assuming that you have a different mental perspective than they do. They assume that since you are not in the bathroom with them, you cannot see whether or not they brush their teeth, so they describe the situation without you realizing the truth. Although discovering that your child lied may be surprising, it is also a sign that your child is maturing in this specific cognitive skill. While lying has hefty moral connotations associated with it, it’s helpful to understand that often the underlying process has more to do with cognitive change than anything else.
How to Respond to Lies in Early Childhood
Understanding the source of and motivation for children’s lying helps inform how we respond to these situations. Given that lying in children in these early years mostly centers around their cognitive development, it’s useful to think about our responses in that context.
Although each child is unique, lying during these early childhood years generally relates to the cognitive shift that occurs when children understand the Theory of Mind more fully. Like a child with a new toy, children just learning about the perspectives and thoughts of others are trying to figure out how this new cognitive skill works. They realize they can deceive others since their minds are not just like their own. In this context, lying is typically the result of experimentation rather than intentional malice.
Based on this, our response can focus more on education and training rather than punishment or consequences. If we overreact to lying in young children and become angry, this may provoke fear in them. The fear of further punishment or angry response may result in us inadvertently reinforcing their lying.
Instead of harshness, it may be more helpful to approach lying with curiosity:
- Ask the child why they lied or if they even realize that lying is a problem
- Reinforce the importance of honesty and why your family values it
- Offer examples of how they could have handled the situation differently (without lying)
Finally, praising a child when they do act honestly can be a great form of positive reinforcement. Specifically, mentioning how they chose honesty when they could have lied will show them that you really understand their situation.
We all want to raise honest children. In the case of young children, however, their lying often results from cognitive changes happening beneath the surface rather than intentional dishonesty. Understanding the developmental underpinnings of lying can help us shape our discipline tactics to fit our children’s needs.
Preview Blurb: You just discovered your child lied to you about an incident or behavior. What do you do? Children lie for different reasons, and they don’t all indicate a lack of moral sense in your child. Discover common developmental reasons why young children lie and how to respond to them in a way that fosters honesty and integrity.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.