I know how upsetting it is when our children lie. We all want our kids to be good people. We worry that if our child is lying that we have done something wrong and that they aren’t developing good character.
The answers are different depending on the age of the child.
When Younger Children Lie
Keep in mind brain development.
Around the age of 3, kids make a developmental leap where they realize that we can’t see inside their minds and that we don’t necessarily know what they are thinking. This period of brain development is when small children develop the ability to lie.
It often takes until around the age of 6 for kids to understand the morality of lying, and until around the age of 8 for children to fully understand how lying can hurt other people.
We can take a deep breath! It doesn’t mean our children are future criminal masterminds.
Let’s look at why little kids lie:
Little kids have wishful thinking.
When they make a mistake, they often simply wish they hadn’t. Or, they wish they didn’t actually HAVE to do something they don’t want to do.
This might look like: Your child comes into the house and goes straight to playing. You ask them if they washed their hands and they say, “Yes, I washed my hands.”
Try this instead: invite them to show you the answer.
Instead of “Did you wash your hands?” ask “Can I smell your clean, fresh hands?”
Instead of “Did you brush your teeth?” ask “Can I smell your minty, fresh breath?”
Instead of “Did you tidy up your playroom?” ask “Can you show me the living room
now that you have cleaned up your toys?”
If it’s too late and they’ve already lied? Don’t worry. Just empathize and help them do it.
Little kids tell tall tales.
A young child might tell a story that you know isn’t true, but they’re insisting that it is.
This might look like: your child tells you that there was a dragon who played with all the kids on the schoolyard today.
Instead of getting caught up in fear about your child lying, go along with their tall tale in a playful manner. You both know that it’s not true but you’re playing along instead of challenging them.
This is an expression of their creativity and they are practicing storytelling.
Kids want to please us with what they think is the right answer.
Kids don’t want to get in trouble.
This might look like: you walk into the room and you’re a one-year-old is crying and your four-year-old is standing there holding their younger sibling’s toy.
You say, “What happened?” And your 4-year-old says “I don’t know.”
You’re fairly certain that the four-year-old had taken the one-year-old’s toy, but your older child doesn’t want you to be unhappy with them.
If you do use consequences or punishment in your household, they don’t want to get in trouble.
They’re trying to protect themselves and trying to stay “good” in your eyes.
What do we do?
Take a deep breath and try not to get angry or upset.
We want to teach kids that it’s safe to tell us hard things.
We don’t want to focus on consequences or trying to make them feel bad to teach them something.
We want to remind ourselves that this is a small moment in time and this doesn’t mean that they’re going to be lying when they’re older.
Lead with empathy and let the child know you understand. Then invite them to make a repair and let them know that we’re here to help solve the problem.
This might sound like: “Oh my goodness, the baby’s crying and you have the toy that she was playing with. You must have really, really wanted that toy to take it from her. Look, she’s so sad. She’s crying. Remember in our family everybody gets to use their toys for as long as they want until they’re done with them. Would you like to give it back to her or can I give it back to her? Would you like to give her a hug?”
If your child insists that they didn’t do anything, you can do a little bit of gentle probing, such as: “I bet you wish you didn’t take the toy. I bet you’re sorry that you took the toy.”
This lets them know that we still think they’re a good person even though they made a mistake, which makes it even safer for them to tell us hard things.
We can also just let it go.
We don’t need to get into a power struggle over insisting that they tell the truth.
We want to show them that we are safe to tell anything to. Hopefully next time they will feel safe enough to not lie.
A note: We also want to make sure that we’re modeling honesty.
Sometimes it feels tempting to tell our children little lies.
It can be a lot easier to tell your child that the internet is broken or that the cookies are gone rather than saying “We’re done watching TV for the day” or “I wasn’t planning on serving anymore cookies.”
Our kids will eventually figure out that the internet isn’t broken and there are more cookies, and they will learn from us that lying is okay.
When it comes to little kids, let the tall tales go, and recognize and appreciate them for their creativity. When we have a wishful thinking lie or a lie to not get in trouble, stay focused on letting your child know that it’s safe to tell you anything and that you will work together to find a solution.
If you practice this when your children are little, they will grow up knowing that they can be honest with you even when things are really tough and that you’ll work together to figure things out.
When Older Children Lie
Kids lie to avoid shame or punishment.
Over the age of around eight, children know that lying is wrong. They no longer lie for wishful thinking reasons, but they do lie to avoid punishment and to avoid shame.
Even if you’re not punishing, but you are getting angry or unhappy with your child when they mess up, then they might be lying to avoid shame.
Shame makes them feel unworthy and unlovable. It is the worst feeling in the world, even for an older kid, to feel that mom or dad or their caregiver thinks that they’re a bad person.
And they will lie to avoid having that feeling.
That’s not to say that you are never going to be unhappy with your older child!
But we can use empathy to let them know that even though you are not happy about the choice or mistake that they made, you still know that they are a good person, and you can work together to fix it.
Older kids lie to get what they want or to have more autonomy or privacy.
As your kids get older, make sure that you’re revisiting the limits that you have in your family and that you are giving them adequate autonomy and privacy.
Be willing to revisit things that they can do, who they can hang out with, limits around screen time, or limits around moving through the world and freedom and autonomy.
Don’t make them have to sneak around behind your back because you’re unwilling to negotiate or be flexible with them about what they can or can’t do.
If you do find your older child or your teen is lying to you, work on your relationship and connection with them.
Through connection, create a sense of safety so that they can tell you hard things.
If your relationship is important to them, then lying doesn’t feel good.
If you are doing all of these things, and your older child is still lying a lot, it may be a sign that there’s something difficult going on in your child’s life.
Talk to your doctor or to a family therapist to explore what might be going on with your older child. They may be struggling in some way that you have not been able to recognize.
Hopefully you now have some strategies and some peace of mind if you’re the parent of a little wishful thinker or storyteller, or if you need a new approach to your older child who is struggling to come to you with the truth.
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com