Why do kids lie?

Believe it or not, lying in the early years is a normal part of childhood development involving independence, emotional regulation and putting things into perspective. So it’s not all bad! Find out more about pre-schoolers reasons for lying, dealing with lies, setting an example and continued lying.
Believe it or not, lying in the early years is a normal part of childhood development involving independence, emotional regulation and putting things into perspective. So it’s not all bad!

Children’s minds develop through observation of the world around them and they are constantly experimenting with the idea of cause and effect, continually fine tuning their skills according to the results of each experiment.

Children can start lying as young as two years old. At this age, their lies are often related to storytelling and a mixture of make believe and reality involving creative play and everyday life. 

In order for a child to actually lie however, they need to know that what they are saying is false and that it is wrong, and this awareness does not occur until they are around 3 to 4 years old.

Kids who lie are demonstrating important cognitive skills, but paradoxically, they also lie in part because they don't have great cognitive skills.

Children are emotional and impulsive, so despite clear instructions not to do something, they will continue to do it. Then they try to cover up their mistakes, as they don't want to suffer the consequences.

As kids get older and develop cognitively, a child’s ability to lie increases and they are better able to convince their audience that their story is true.

Reasons for lying

Children lie for a variety of reasons depending on the situation they find themselves in and their motivation, such as to:
  • cover something up, hoping to avoid a consequence or punishment
  • gain parental or others approval and attention
  • explore and experiment with their parents’ responses and reactions
  • exaggerate a story or to impress others
  • manipulate a situation even when they’re aware the listener knows the truth

Dealing with lies

The best way to address a child's lie is calmly and by talking about honesty and trust.

Punishing pre-schoolers for lying may backfire because they often do not fully understand the concept of honesty.

However at this age they are constantly striving for their parents’ approval and honesty brings with it a positive association and an ‘approval-factor’.
Keep consequences appropriate and in line with the seriousness of  the lie that’s been told.

If the punishment is too extreme, it can actually motivate a child not to stop lying, but to conversely get better at it so they don’t get caught the next time and punished as severely.
Because lies often go hand-in-hand with misdeeds, you need to separate the two in your mind.

So if you catch your child telling a lie, stay calm and don’t let the lie get in the way of the real issues connected to the lie, which are that your child has done something wrong AND they need to learn how to be honest.

For example, you have to address the fact that your child has drawn on the wall, AND you also need to address the fact that they lied about it. Don't join the two together, because they're different actions.

Setting an example

Don't expect your kids to be honest if you're not.

The first most vital step in helping your child to understand that lying is not acceptable is not to do it yourself, and to own up and show remorse if you are uncovered as having told a lie.

When kids see an adult lie, children witness cause and effect.

Also as they get older they pick up tips on how to lie cleverly to avoid getting caught, whilst learning at the same time that honesty has no value.

Continued lying

If kids lie and it gets them out of a sticky situation or they achieve another such benefit, they are motivated to keep on lying. It is then that lying can get more complex as children grow up.

Not only can it become a way of avoiding punishment, but it can also become a manipulative technique to increase a child’s power and sense of control.

The good news is, however, that older children are also potentially better at owning up to their mistakes and coping with disapproval than a younger child, so honesty can be easier for them to manage, which can make them less likely to lie.

The worry is that if lying is not dealt with appropriately in early childhood, kids can come to rely on it as a tool for getting their own way and this pattern can then continue into adult life with lies getting more serious, more complex and with greater consequences.

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