Updated: Nov 6, 2020
As parents, one of the biggest frustrations we can have with our kids is that they lie. The truth is they all do it because it is normal. Lying is actually sign of a pretty significant developmental stage. Lying tends to start at about 2-5 years of age and it is when "theory of mind" develops. "Theory of mind" is a really important development, it is when a child becomes aware that other people have thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are different from themselves. It is the foundations of some really important socials skills and we literally can't have empathy without it. But it also gives us the ability to lie. There have even been studies that report that lying in young children is a sign of intelligence. However that doesn't mean that we celebrate when our kids lie, we still want to encourage honesty but overall it probably isn't something to be overly concerned about.
Why do kids lie?
The most common reason kids lie is because they don't want to get into trouble. Nobody likes to suffer the consequences when they know they have done something wrong. It makes sense that a child would lie to try and avoid this. Really it should not be surprising that kids don't want to tell their parents something that they think they are going to get punished for. Parents often push kids into a corner, we bait them by asking if they have done something when we know they have. For example, "did you eat the chocolate?" when they have chocolate all over their face. We think we are giving them an opportunity to tell the truth, but really we are putting them on the spot and they react out of fear. That's not the best way to get the truth. Instead we should just say "I see you have eaten the chocolate." You can then ask about how that makes you feel and why you might be disappointed by what they did.
Punishing a child for lying is not going to stop the lying, it is just going to make them try harder to be better at it to avoid the punishment. We need to coach our kids through understanding when lies are most harmful, how they affect others and even how they feel when they lie. As we do this our kids are able to connect with why lying is not something we should do rather than something that gets you punished. We also need to focus on when they are honest and emphasize that this is positive. Even if they tell you something that they did that was wrong, thank them for being honest. Then work through what has happened together, getting them involved in fixing the problem.
To Compensate for Low Self-Esteem
Have you heard kids saying how they scored all the points in the game, or how they did these amazing things that you know couldn't be true? Often people think that these kids have a big opinion of themselves and they "need to be brought down a peg or two" when in fact, the opposite is true. When kids start telling grandiose lies to make themselves look good, it is usually because they think that they don't measure up and that they need to lie to get approval. These kids don't need to be brought down, they need to be lifted up, we need them to feel good about themselves and their own strengths.
We definitely shouldn't punish our kids or make them feel bad if they are lying like this. That is only going to make them feel worse. I also wouldn't ignore it completely. When you know that your child has made up a lie that is trying to make themselves look good, then have a conversation about it. Say to them "I know that it didn't happen like that, you don't have to try and impress me, I already love so much about you". You could ask them why they said that, but they may not really know, just that they wished that it did happen. Try and focus on what your child is good at, what are their characters you love about them. I have written a few blogs to focus on building Self-esteem. If you haven't read them yet, have a look at "the Self-Esteem Bucket" and "the Tree of Me".
To Test What would Happen
Avoiding punishment isn't the only reason kids lie. Sometimes kids lie because they want to see what would happen if they did something. What would people's reactions be? What would be the consequences? Would it be Okay? It can be a way to test the water before they actually do something. These could be good or bad things, it might just be something that they didn't have the confidence to do yet. They could also be practicing lying to see when it works and when it doesn't. Parents cringe at the idea of their kids practicing lying but if you think about it, adults lie a lot, they just know when it is okay and when it isn't. Saying to your friend that you have an appointment when you really just want to stay home instead of going out with them, is a socially acceptable lie. We don't think anything of it because we know that we did it to spare our friend's feelings, but kids are learning this "skill". It is a "skill" that like everything, takes time to master and develop.
Some lies that don't seem to be causing any harm or don't seem to be compensating for low self-esteem, can probably be ignored. Remember it is normal, and we don't need to make a big deal of every lie. You could say "I'm not sure about that" or something similar so that they know that you are aware that it isn't the truth, but there is no need to over react.
Speaking before they think
Some kids, particularly kids who are very impulsive, may talk before they have thought through what has happened. It may seem like they are lying because they are changing their story, but they make have just answered before they recalled all the information. When this happens we need to make sure we are giving them enough time to process everything. We are not giving them time to make up a story, we are giving them time to put all their memories together in order.
Sometimes kids actually believe what they have said because they forgot that there was more to the story or more that they should have done. So they might think that they have put their clothes away but they got distracted half way through and didn't finish. If this is happening, then kids may need visual checklists, timers and other ways to stay on task and be more organised.
There are many reasons why kids lie. It could be to avoid punishment, to try and feel better about themselves, to try it out or simply because they are impulsive. Whatever the reason, we need to remember that lying is normal and is an important part of development. Punishing kids for lying is only going to make them try and lie better and lower their self-esteem. Instead we need to look at the reason for the lie and help them grow from there.