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Why Do Young Children Lie?

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Why Do Young Children Lie?

Jun 08, 2023

Is your child telling tall tales? Before you panic, consider this: lying is actually part of normal developmental growth. Child psychologist Matthew Woolley, PhD, breaks down the cognitive progression behind why children lie. He also offers practical tips and strategies to guide parents through these challenging, yet entirely normal, episodes of untruths in childhood. Learn how to respond effectively to promote honesty and integrity as your child grows.

Episode Transcript

Lying is a difficult challenge. To be honest with you, as a parent, my children lie as well because it's a developmental task. For example, I have a 10-year-old who is one of those guys who will just look you right in the face and tell you he didn't do it. So nothing is more frustrating to me as a parent, personally, than when kids lie. And because it's a developmental issue, all kids are going go through that stage. In fact, I have a 10-year-old who honestly is a really, pretty good liar, and that's something we've had to work on at our house. So I want to talk to you about how to understand lying in your children and what to do about it.

Recognizing the Purpose of Lying in Younger Children

So one of the things that I'd like people to consider today is that lying is actually a developmental task; it's a psychological construct, and it varies depending on a child's cognitive level of development, their awareness of things, for example, fantasy and reality.

A five or six-year-old lying is struggling with concepts of what's real and what's not real. Often times as a parent, if you're watching a show, a child will turn to you who's five or six years old and say, "Now, could that really happen?" Whatever fantasy is happening in the movie, you as a parent find yourself having to clue them into what's real and what's not. You know, can Superman really fly or is this just a fun part of the movie? Sixteen-year-olds should have a full grasp of fantasy versus reality. They may still really enjoy fantasy, but they know that the Harry Potter world is just that, it's a fantasy world.

And so lying is an interesting concept because all human beings even from a very young age, we're preprogrammed to get our needs met. Little children have needs too, playing, eating, being with friends, being entertained. Whatever their need is, they will want to get them met, including avoiding punishment. A child does not want to be in trouble, or they do want to have a cookie, or whatever it happens to be, and so one of the things that parents ought to consider is lying; when I hear it coming from a preschool or an early elementary school-aged child, I need to consider that that's a very different mechanism than my junior high or high schooler.

Encourage Truthfulness and Honest Behavior

For example, if a child who's five or six years old starts into a lie, you might want to ask yourself, what's their purpose here? What need are they trying to meet, and is there a different way I can teach and train them to meet that need? For example, a simple technique with a child would be to give them a do-over.

So I often tell parents if you have a five or six-year-old, a preschool or early elementary school-aged child and they're lying to you about maybe, they didn't spill the milk, or whatever it happens to be. It's a great time to instead of jump on them for being a liar, as we don't want them to develop that concept about themselves at such a young age, you might jump in and say, you know, "This doesn't seem like the full story or the whole truth. Let's try again. I'd really like to give you a do-over, and in fact, I'm going to turn around and turn back, and I'd like you to do your very best to tell me the whole story, the full truth."

Now oftentimes, at that age, part of their desire is to really please mom and dad, and if they can see that you're setting them up to please you, they're often going to go along with the program or the do-over.

Then you're in an easy position. You can kind of coach them along, make sure they tell the whole story, and then you can just praise them for that. "I know that was really hard to tell me that you broke this or spilled that, but I'm really proud of you for doing it. Now, let's talk about how we fix that problem." There's a consequence of learning to clean it up and put it away, and that's all often that has to happen.

Avoid Setups for Lying: Straightforward Communication

Another thing parents might want to be aware of is we often set our kids up to fail or to lie, and we don't realize that we're doing it. So for example, as a parent, if you know that your younger child has broken something, you don't want to start off by setting them up to lie, by saying, "Hey, what happened here with this? Tell me, do you know who broke this?"

Because if they're still struggling with fantasy versus reality, in their little minds they're thinking, "Oh, well I certainly don't to be the one that broke this because I can tell where this is going. So I'm going to create a lie that changes my reality. No, I don't know who did this. It was probably the neighbor kid." Kids are just cute with all their, it might have been the dog. Who knows, because they're creating an alternate reality where they don't get in trouble.

As a parent, I think that you ought to be just straight up. You've got to come to them and say, "I know what happened. Let's talk about what happened." Then you can praise them for being honest and having an honest conversation with you, but you don't let them out of the consequence either. But by doing that, you have this balanced approach where you're training your child to be reinforced for telling the truth.

The Importance of Parental Behavior

Another simple one is modeling. So a lot of parents are very upset that their children bend the truth or lie about things, and yet we model the very same thing to them. I would consider that in kind of social, white lie. For example, if somebody calls that mom doesn't want to talk to, and mom says to the child, "Tell them I'm not home." You've modeled lying for your own convenience. Now, how else would you handle that? There might be different ways. You might say, "Please tell the person that I'm not available to talk right now and I can call them back." That would be an alternative to just teaching their child to lie, and that's confusing to the younger children. But the main thing, whether they're a teenager or a younger child, is reinforcing their honest behavior even if they have blown it the first time. Coming up next time we're going to be talking about adolescent development and lying and what parents can do about it.


updated: June 8, 2023
originally published: September 23, 2013