Child Care Challenges: Lying

May 30, 2017

Understanding why children lie and how to help



Hearing a child lie can be very disconcerting for parents, but it is a normal part of child development. Here are some pointers to help parents and caregivers work through the challenge of lying.

  • Keep your child's age in mind. Depending on your child's age, what seems like lying to adults may actually reflect wishful thinking, an active imagination, or wanting to please parents. For example, preschoolers may lie in the context of telling tall tales ("I can run faster than Daddy!") or as a reflexive response for approval ("No!" in response to "Did you eat all the cookies?"). They also may lie to get their way (To the sitter: "My mom said I do not need to clean up my toys."). In contrast, older children understand explicitly that lying is wrong but still may do so to stay out of trouble, get what they want, impress people, gain praise, or protect someone.
  • Stick to the facts. For preschoolers, simply stick to the facts in a calm manner. For example, in response to "I can run faster than Daddy!" say, "Hmm... your legs are shorter than Daddy's so that seems like it would be hard to do, but as you get taller, you probably will be able to run faster than Daddy!" Or in response to "My mom said I do not need to clean up my toys" say, "I know your mom likes things tidy and I bet she would be really happy to see these toys put away. Let's do it together."
  • Don't set your child up to lie. If you see that all of the cookies are gone, or there's a huge stain on the rug and your child is the only one around, don't set them up to lie by asking if they did it. They will not want to confess because they do not want to deal with your disapproval. Instead, use calm responses such as, "All the cookies are gone. Do you want to help me make some more, or use that money Grammy gave you so we can go buy a new pack for the family?" or "This stain needs to be cleaned up immediately or the rug will be all sticky. Let's do it together."
  • Make the consequence fit the response. With older children you can have more complex conversations about lying. Explain to them that if they do something wrong but are honest about it, the consequence will be different than if they do something wrong and lie about it. Be consistent in your treatment of lying.
  • Praise truthfulness. Remember that your child is always looking for your approval, and this is sometimes why they lie in the first place. When they do something wrong and are truthful, acknowledge this behavior and help them through the situation ("I know that it must have been really hard to tell me the truth, but I am so happy you did. Let's go together to tell the neighbor that you accidentally scratched their car").
  • Teach empathy. Tell your child that it's important for them to tell the truth so they can be trusted. Try to help them see things from the other side, asking how they would feel if someone lied to them.
  • Look for the origin. Consider why your child is lying. Think about their peers, the stress level at home, or the severity of your response to their lying. Talk to them about why they feel compelled to lie about certain things, and talk together about finding a solution.
  • Model honest behavior. If your child hears you lie repeatedly, this basically models to them that lying is okay. And if they catch you in a lie, don't be afraid to discuss it with them and point out your own faults. Each of these teaching experiences will help them learn about right and wrong.

Lying is a normal part of child development. Use each lying episode as a teaching experience, and remain calm and consistent in your responses. Each experience will help them learn that honesty is a virtue.

Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist who writes about child care issues for and other sites.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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