You just realized your child lied to you about something important. Perhaps it told you they completed their homework when they really did not. Maybe it was not being completely honest about where they would be on an outing with friends. Whatever the issue, discovering that your child has lied is concerning as a parent. What can we do to ensure that our children understand the problem with lying? Is it possible to help them understand the problematic nature of lying while still maintaining a strong relationship with them? Raising honest children is a lofty goal that requires us to dig a bit deeper to understand lying in children.
Why Children Lie?
We know that lying among young children (under age 6) is often the result of cognitive changes that prompt them to understand another person’s perspective differently. However, as children mature, lying takes on a different meaning. In older children, lying may have origins beyond simple cognitive development. Some research indicates that a family’s parenting style may play a role in children’s lying. Some studies find that a parenting style that includes aggressive discipline is associated with higher rates of lying in children. Researchers speculate that his connection may result from children being motivated to lie to parents out of fear of punishment. Many of us have probably seen children lie in an ill-directed attempt to avoid punishment for a poor choice or misbehavior.
In contrast, parents who focus on establishing a warm, open relationship with children may, indirectly, promote greater honesty in children. Parenting styles that emphasize children’s age-appropriate autonomy and the open exchange of information are linked with lower rates of lying among children. In these families, children may feel safer sharing information with their parents, knowing that they have established a warm, open relationship. Thus, they are less inclined to lie to avoid punishment.
For some children, the motivation to lie comes from more internal issues. Children who lack self-confidence or want to portray a particular image in front of their peers may lie to meet these goals. They may tell “tall tales” about amazing experiences or claim to have awesome abilities that, in reality, are not so grandiose. While these types of lies may seem “victimless” because they do not harm the other children, they inadvertently hurt the child themselves. By establishing friendships based on lies, the child ultimately undermines their ability to keep these friends and risks being ostracized by them.
Responding to Lying Among Older Children
Since older children typically have a more developed sense of morals and the ramifications of lying, it’s useful to respond differently than we might respond to younger children. As we have seen, children may lie to avoid punishment due to low self-esteem or make themselves look better in front of peers.
In these cases, our response to lying can focus more on consequences and teaching. A few options for responding to lying in older children could include:
- Natural Consequences: In the case of lying, the most direct natural consequence is the fact that you (or others) cannot trust the child in the future. Explain this to the child and offer examples of ways in which this affects their daily life (e.g., you cannot trust them to have access to snacks if they lie about eating them when you are not present). Additionally, consequences can relate to the behavior in question. For example, if a child lies about breaking a sibling’s toy, the consequence could be to repair or buy a new toy for their sibling. These types of consequences help the child experience the real-life impact of lying.
- Offer Time: If you discover your child has been lying about something, it is sometimes helpful to give them the option to tell the truth first, prior to reprimanding them for the lie. For example, if you thought your child was at a friend’s house after school and discovered from the other parents that your child lied about that, you could offer them a chance to tell the truth. This is helpful because it gives the child some time to think through the consequences prior to facing you. Based on their response, you could decide on an appropriate consequence.
- Value Honesty. We all value honesty in our children and others, but making this tangible to children can be particularly helpful. Modeling honesty in your own interactions and situations helps children internalize this value. Furthermore, in your interactions with your children, continue to emphasize the value of honesty. This could mean explaining to them that lying about a poor choice or misbehavior makes the situation even more serious in your mind. When children understand that being honest, even when they make a mistake, is a better choice than lying, they begin to recognize the importance of honesty.
While most of us are probably shocked and appalled to learn that our child lied, understanding the underlying motivations can help us respond more appropriately. Rather than reacting harshly or instilling fear in our children, we can use consequences and heartfelt discussions to help them adopt the value of honesty.
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.
Sanford Health (2021) Why children lie, and how to react properly. Sanford Health
Arky, B. (2022) Why Kids Lie and What Parents Can Do About It. Child Mind Institute.
Eguaras, S.G. and Izaskun Ibabe Erostarbe, I.I. (2021). The Role of Parenting Practices in Children’s Antisocial Lying: A Systematic Review.