Why Do Children Lie And What Should You Do About It?

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Everyone has told lies. You, your parents, your partner, your school teacher. So is it any wonder that children lie, too? 

The first time I heard my son lie, I was astonished. I couldn’t believe my ears! 

Whether it’s intentional or not, children lie for many different reasons. But when do these lies become problematic, and when are they simply harmless? 

If you’re wondering why do children lie, together we’ll have a look at the reasons and what it is that you should do about it. 

When Do Children Start to Lie?

By the age of three, children have learned that you are, in fact, not a mind reader, nor can you see past walls and doors.

They’ve started to realize that mommy and daddy don’t have magic crystal ball talents. Therefore, lying is definitely now an option when you clearly don’t know the real truth!

Between four and six years, they have started to learn how to match tone of voice and facial expressions with lying, to make it more difficult to be caught.

However, they usually will own up to their lies if they are asked outright.

By the time children have reached school age, they have the ability to be a better liar and have a much wider vocabulary range to support them in this.

They understand how to read other people more so now, and it will be more of a challenge for you to work out whether these are lies or not.

At eight years old, children can successfully lie without being caught. 

Emotions and Behaviors Behind the Lies

Matthew Rouse PhD is a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, who has studied the different reasons behind a child’s lying. 

He puts some of the reasons down to poor mental health, which is important to look out for. If your child is still young, they may not even know they’re lying and state incorrect information by accident.

Testing Parents and Boundaries

Children love to test out their new skills, whether it be riding a bike, saying a new phrase, or lying. And being the main caregiver, moms and dads are usually the first to be tested! 

They’ll want to know what they get out of it, and whether lying results in a treat or a punishment. They’ll wonder what circumstances will change in different situations if they resort to lying as opposed to truth-telling. 

Once a child has learned to lie, they will learn that this results in different consequences. They are therefore keen to understand what lies result in good things happening and which result in negative consequences. 

Seeking Approval and Boosting Self-Esteem

Children may lie if their truths are unaccepted or people are disinterested by them. They will lie to make themselves seem more talented or special and, therefore, more interesting and appealing to others. 

It may start with exaggeration, but this will then develop into outright lying as a child silently begs for attention and approval. 

A child may have helped a cat come down from a wall that was stuck which is an act of kindness and receive little attention. But if they add that the cat was crying, had a leg missing, and was being chased by a fox, then their actions become heroic and people are talking about them for the rest of the day. 

Taking the Focus Away From Themselves 

A child with depression, anxiety, and low self-worth will hate being in the spotlight and having attention focused on them.

Thus, they may lie to divert conversations or attentions away and to something else.

They may play topics down and withhold the truth because they don’t want the truth to be a cause for great attention by others. 

A child may have fallen over and cut their knee but will tell you they have no injuries and are fine, so you don’t persist in asking questions and leave them alone. 

Speaking Before Thinking 

Sometimes a child may lie impulsively, which is common in kids with ADHD

It may be unintentional lying because they’re so eager to tell you about something that happened and they forget something or add something that isn’t quite the truth. 

It may also be that the child has problems supplementing their memory. They may need to be introduced to checklists and keeping an organizer because they genuinely forget about that extra homework that they had and thought they did, for example. 

Or it may be that they just don’t want to get in trouble for owning up, to avoid punishment.

What About White Lies?

A tricky one to put under the same lying umbrella are white lies, because parents sometimes even encourage this type of lying—if it’s to spare one’s feelings, for example. 

But telling white lies is circumstantial and therefore depends upon the child’s social skills and ability to use them effectively. 

Types of Lying and What to Do

There are different types of lies that children tell, varying between the seriousness of the lie and how often they do it. Depending on these factors, there are different ways you can tackle the issue.

Attention-Seeking Lies

Generally speaking, attention-seeking lies are best ignored. If you give in to the child, they have in a matter of words “won.” 

Don’t ask lots of follow-up questions to these types of lies, especially when they’re coming from a place of low self-esteem. 

These low-level lies aren’t causing harm to anybody, and instead, you should ignore it and redirect the conversation to something you know is more factual, which then results in truth-telling. 

Be sure to take more interest in the factual conversation.

Intentional Lying

If lying becomes more common and you notice it’s happening in more situations, you should address it.

Make sure the child knows that you are aware of their lies, and remind them that lying can lead to negative consequences. 

You may wish to tell them about a situation that you were in, where your lying or hiding the truth then lead to something bad happening. 

If you notice that a story your child is telling isn’t truthful, point it out and ask for the real story. Be sure to be more enlightened by the facts, encouraging this behavior in the future to tell the truth from the beginning. 

Compulsive Lying

This type of lying has the potential to become dangerous if left unaddressed or not dealt with effectively. 

Depending on the severity of the lie, they should each result in different consequences. And of course, this should be consistent. You must be sure that you reprimand your child each time they lie so they don’t see some lies as acceptable. 

Your child may lie about having homework, in which case they will have to show you their planner every day, and all missed homework must be completed. 

If a child hits another and lies about it, they should be made to write a letter of apology as well as receiving punishment for the lie itself. 

Losing access to free time or screen time is a common punishment.

Be sure that consequences are short-lived so they are dealt with quickly, and better behaviors can be practiced again. 

Encourage Honesty

We all want our children to be honest with us, so here are some tips that you can do at home to encourage honesty:

  • Remember, imagination is different from lying, and be sure to identify these differences to your child. If they start telling a fictional story, tell your child to write it into a book or create a picture story. This will encourage imagination but doesn’t support lying. 
  • Help your child with situations before they feel a need to lie. If they’ve spilled their drink, tell them to clean it up. Show them they need to deal with their actions instead of lying about them. 
  • Praise your child and listen to them more often, especially if they tend to regularly exaggerate stories. They want your attention. 
  • Read stories together that encourage truth-telling and being honest. The boy who cried wolf is a clear and obvious favorite!
  • When your child confesses to something that may lead to negative consequences, praise them for their honesty and help them to solve the problem together. 

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

If you’ve noticed your little one has started to tell lies, don’t panic just yet. It’s common for every child to experiment when they’re just getting to grips with what’s true and false. Try to encourage honesty over punishment for lying.

Howard is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Kristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.