Age-by-age guide to lying: How to handle your child's lying
Let’s start this article about lies with an undeniable truth: Your child will lie. All children lie! Lying is very common around children, and as parents, it is our job to manage this behavior appropriately so that they understand the importance of honesty.
Unfortunately, like in other aspects of parenting, there is no direct answer on how to handle a lie from children, especially because lying occurs differently at different ages. Children start lying as young as 2 - 3 years old, but since lying requires complex thinking, children start getting better at lying as they age . Due to the motivation behind the lie, and the different stages of development children go through in the first years of life, there are different ways to handle a child’s lying. Let's take a look at the ins and outs of lies in children.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
Why do children lie?
Surprisingly, children lie for similar reasons as adults do! Here are a few common reasons children lie:
To get out of trouble for something they did or didn’t do
To gain something personal
To impress, protect, or make someone feel better (also known as prosocial lying )
To be kind and/or avoid someone feeling bad
As children grow and start living outside of their family dynamics (playdates on their own, school, and after-school activities), it is common that their lies start revolving around these situations and the responsibilities that they entail.
When do children start lying?
Children can begin lying as young as age 2 or 3! If you have a toddler at home, you have probably already caught them saying that they didn’t eat a certain candy even though their hands and mouth are covered in it.
At this age, children’s lies focus on denying a behavior. Children this young do not have the ability to maliciously deceive others, which means that their lies are based on wishful thinking. If they say they didn’t eat the cookie, then mom will not get mad, which means, they didn’t do anything wrong!
As children enter the preschool years, they start getting better at understanding what another person might be thinking, which means that they are able to tell more elaborate lies based on what the other person knows (or doesn’t know). At this age, they also understand the concept of right and wrong, but even if they know lying is bad, they are still young children, and their desire to please adults might be greater than their desire to be honest. As children reach late elementary and middle school, their executive memory and cognitive skills are elaborate enough that they are more capable of creating complex lies and deceiving other people, all while appearing to be telling the truth. At this age, the most common reason for lying is to avoid getting in trouble. Considering that lying is a normal and expected behavior in the childhood years, let's avoid lying to ourselves. Rather than thinking that we have a perfect child that will never lie, let's look at ways to handle the lying when the situation arises.
How to handle lying during the toddler stage (2 - 3 years old)
Even from a small age, we always want to encourage truthfulness in children. At this age, there is no malicious intent from toddlers when they lie, all they are trying to do is disappear the behavior so that mommy/daddy or their caregiver won’t be upset. Whenever you encounter yourself with a lie, don’t overreact! Be gentle with your words and redirect to the truth. Let’s take a look at a common scenario:
Your child eats a treat that they are not supposed to, and they are firm with their words “I DID NOT EAT THAT COOKIE.”You can respond by saying “Mmmm that's funny, your hands smell like cookies and there are tons of crumbs on the floor.” By stating some facts, you are not entering into a power struggle with your child. Then, follow up with a simple sentence that can help reinforce why the truth is important. Something like “Please let mommy know when you have a treat so that I can make sure your tummy doesn’t hurt after.” Remember that we don’t want to be authoritarian in our voice and scare our children into the truth: our goal as parents is to make sure that we connect with our children so that lines of communication are always open. Our goal is for our children to trust us, not fear us.
How to handle lying during the preschool stage (4 - 5 years old)
In positive parenting, we want to make sure that we are our child’s emotional compass, which means that our reactions and emotions around different situations will determine how they react to such situations. If you catch your child in a lie, remain calm, but use a firm, assertive voice to emphasize that they have lied and that lying is not okay. For example, your child insists that they did not break a candle in the living room while playing with a ball, but the evidence says otherwise. You can first start off by emphasizing that you are not mad, and then proceed to explain what a lie is, and why the truth is important. Here is an example of what you can say: “Mmm it sounds like you are not telling the truth. I am not mad that the candle broke, accidents happen, can you please tell me again what happened?” If your child responds with honesty, congratulate them on their honesty and move forward. But if they keep insisting on the lie, move your focus away from what happened and have a brief conversation about what a lie is, and why it is important to tell the truth. Depending on your child’s mood and attention span, you can either ask for the truth again or take a pause and resume the conversation later.
Avoid confrontation or making your child upset and uncomfortable, as this will only make them resistant to the “lies & truth” conversation. Use additional tools like books and stories to emphasize the importance of truth.
Finally, lead by example. Children at this age are very observant and they can begin to understand when you lie to other adults. Avoid asking them to hide things from another caregiver (“I’ll give you a cookie but don’t tell mommy”) as this makes it seem like lying is ok.
How to handle lying during the elementary stage (6 - 10 years old)
It is important that there is always a conversation around lying, honesty, and morality. As children get older , lies tend to increase, and older children are better at maintaining lies when questioned. In positive parenting, prevention strategies are always useful to help prevent or diminish unwanted behaviors. Make it a priority to always speak about the importance of truthfulness with your child, and emphasize that telling the truth will never get them in trouble or lead to punishment.
Once your child admits to the lie, find out the truth and view this as a skill-building moment. Why did your child lie? Was there a situation they were trying to avoid? Is there a task they are having a hard time with? What skills are they lacking? Let’s look at an example. Sally tells her mom that there hasn’t been any math homework this week. At the end of the week, Sally’s mom gets an email from her math teacher saying that Sally didn’t turn in any of her homework this week. Instead of immediately yelling at Sally and punishing her for not turning in her homework, Sally’s mom opens the lines of communication and gives Sally a chance to be truthful. Afterward, she focuses her attention on why Sally didn’t turn in her homework. Does she feel like she has a big workload? Is she needing help remembering tasks? After a conversation with Sally, Mom realizes that Sally was lacking confidence in her math skills and could benefit from a tutor to help her with homework assignments.
Another strategy for this age is a “truth check.” If your child lies about something, you can give them a short break and come back and ask the question again. For example: “Hey, I’m going to the kitchen to do some dishes. I’ll come back in a bit to see if you decide to change your answer to the question. You won't get in trouble, this is just a truth check.” If lies become more serious or more recurrent, then it is a good idea to establish age-appropriate, reasonable consequences. Additionally, there should be some work done on both sides (parent and child) to address the “why” behind the lie. Try to approach from a place of curiosity, rather than one of judgment. Last, but not least, remember to always watch your own behavior around your children and avoid lying to others while in front of your children.
Q: What are some age-appropriate consequences for lying?
Lying should be treated like any other behavior, therefore, the consequences for lying should be logical to what the child lied about. Consequences should be established in a respectful manner, reasonable, and related to the behavior. If a child lies about not doing their homework, an appropriate consequence might be to finish their homework before they can engage in other activities they enjoy.
Q: How do you punish a child for lying?
You want to avoid punishing your child when they tell a lie because this can make them want to keep lying in the future or create feelings of resentment. Instead of looking to punish the child, have a conversation about the importance of telling the truth, look and address the behavior behind the lie and if needed, establish age-appropriate logical consequences for your child in a respectful manner, making sure that lines of communication stay respectful and open.
Q: At what age is lying developmentally appropriate?
It is developmentally appropriate for children to lie when they are as young as 2 or 3 years old. In the beginning, these lies are more wishful thinking — if they say something didn’t happen, then it didn’t and it will all be ok! As children enter the preschool and elementary school years, lies will begin to be more complex and children get better at maintaining lies and deceiving others.
Q: Why do kids lie?
Children lie for similar reasons as adults do. To avoid hurting someone, to get out of trouble, for attention, or to impress, protect, or make someone feel better. Children also lie as they start experimenting with boundaries and consequences, and as they grow, their lies start to become more complex.
Q: How do I encourage honesty with my children?
The best way to encourage children to be honest is by prioritizing conversations around the importance of honesty. Use books and social stories to illustrate what a lie is, the consequences of lying, and the importance of always telling the truth. Remember to lead by example and avoid lying in front of your children.
Q: How do I get my child to admit they are lying?
Be gentle with your children when you suspect a lie, and reassure them that telling the truth will not end up in punishment. Avoid cornering your child and labeling them “liars,” as this will only bring up resentment around the topic. Give your child time to reflect and opportunities to tell you the truth and always keep lines of communication open so that they feel safe and comfortable coming to you with the truth.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2008). Social and cognitive correlates of children's lying behavior. Child development. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3483871/
ScienceDirect. (2023). Prosocial behavior. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/prosocial-behavior
Mina Popliger, Victoria Talwar, Angela Crossman. (2011). Predictors of children’s prosocial lie-telling: Motivation, socialization variables, and moral understanding, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022096511001317