Most children tell lies at some point, but it can be a real surprise for parents the first time it happens. Learning how to lie is part of a child’s development – but so is telling the truth. Here’s how to give your child the message that honesty is important.
Children tell lies for many reasons, depending on the situation and their motivation. Children might lie to:
- cover something up, hoping to avoid consequences or punishment
- explore and experiment with their parents’ responses and reactions
- exaggerate a story or impress others
- gain attention, even when they’re aware the listener knows the truth
- manipulate a situation or set something up – for example, saying to grandma, ‘Mum lets me have lollies before dinner’.
Children can learn to tell lies from an early age, usually by around three years of age. This is when they begin to work out that grown-ups are not mind readers, and that they can give people false information – perhaps to get out of trouble or to cover up.
Generally, children lie more between 4-6. They may become more skilled at telling a lie through their body language or being good actors, but will often implicate themselves if pushed to explain further. Studies suggest that four-year-olds can lie about once every two hours, and six-year-olds about every 90 minutes.
When children reach school-age, they lie more often and can do so more convincingly. The lies also become more sophisticated, as their vocabulary grows and they better understand how other people think. By eight, children can lie successfully without getting caught out.
Be positive, and emphasise the importance of honesty in your family.
You can tell your child that you appreciate being told the truth and don’t like it when she lies to you. For example, try saying ‘When you don’t tell me the truth, I feel sad and disappointed’. You could also try books or stories that highlight the importance of honesty. For example, ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf’ gives a good example of how lying can work against you.
Generally, it’s better to teach children the value of telling the truth than to punish them for minor misdeeds. Praise your child for honesty, even if it sometimes takes you a while to get it.
Children like to make things up. They exaggerate stories to give them a bit more ‘flavour’. In fact, pretending and imagining are important to your child’s development. It's good to encourage this kind of play. ‘Tall tales’ don’t need to be treated as lies, especially for children under four.
Tips for encouraging honesty
Once children grow old enough to understand the difference between true and not true, it's good to encourage and support them in telling the truth.
- If your child is telling you something that is imaginary or make-believe, you can simply go along with it. Pretending and imagining are important to your child’s development. For example, your child might tell you that she’s a super-hero. You could respond by asking her about her super-powers.
- Help your child avoid getting into situations where he feels he needs to lie. For example, you see your child has spilled some milk. You could say to him, ‘Did you spill the milk?’ He might lie and say no because he thinks he’s about to get into trouble. To avoid this situation, you could just say, ‘I see there’s been an accident with the milk. Let’s clean it up’.
- Exaggerated stories that involve bragging can be a child’s way of getting admiration or respect from others. If this is happening often, you might want to consider using more praise to boost your child’s self-esteem.
- Make sure that you have clear rules about what is acceptable behaviour in your home. Children are more likely to behave within acceptable boundaries if clear rules are enforced.
- When your child owns up to doing something wrong, praise her for being honest. Say things like, ‘I am really glad you told me the truth. I like it when you are honest’. In fact, it’s important that your child knows that you won’t get upset if she owns up to something.
- If your child is deliberately misleading you, let him know that lying is not acceptable. Explain why it’s not a good thing and that you might not be able to trust him in future. Then use appropriate consequences to deal with the behaviour that led to the lie. For example, if your child drew on the wall, get him to help you clean it up.
- If your child continues to stick to a deliberate lie, you might want to reinforce the idea that lying is not acceptable by using an appropriate discipline strategy. If you explain to your child the consequence of lying, it can help her get out of the habit.
- Try to deal separately with the lying and the behaviour that led to it. First, deal with the lying the way you said you would (for example, use time-out). Then have a look at what caused the behaviour behind the lie. If your child lied to get your attention, consider more positive ways you could give her attention. If she lied to get something she wanted – for example, lollies from grandma – consider a rewards system that lets her earn special treats. You might also need to look at changing her environment to help her avoid situations where she feels the need to lie.
- Try to avoid telling your child that he is a ‘liar’. Labelling him in this way might negatively affect his self-esteem, or lead to even more lying. That is, if your child believes he’s a liar, he might as well as keep lying. It’s more helpful to label and talk about your child’s actions and behaviours.
- One way to discourage children from obvious lying is to make a joke, or exaggerate the untrue statement. For example, a young child might explain a broken toy by saying, ‘A man came in and broke it’. You could say something silly like, ‘Why didn’t you invite him in for dinner?’ Continue the joke a bit longer until the child ‘confesses’. This way, you uncover the lie and teach a lesson without any need for discipline or conflict.
More tips: older children
- As children get older, lies can become a habit. If the lying is happening a lot, make a set time to sit calmly with your child. Talk to her about how her lying makes you feel, how it affects your relationship with her, and what it might be like if family and friends stop trusting her.
- Always tell your child when you know for sure that he is not telling the truth. Your child needs to know that honesty is important to you. But try to avoid asking him all the time if he is telling the truth.
- It might seem like no matter what you do, your child keeps lying. Stick with it! Research says that it’s not until children are seven or older that their parents’ efforts pay off. Children whose parents discipline them for lying and praise them for telling the truth lie less as they grow up.
- Stay involved in your child’s life and encourage her to be truthful with you. Children of all ages who have good communication with their parents and talk with them about what they’re doing are less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour.
Some children, particularly those over seven, lie frequently as part of a larger pattern of inappropriate behaviours such stealing, lighting fires or hurting animals. If your child is involved in such behaviours, you might want to seek professional help from a school counsellor or psychologist.
Sometimes children lie to keep a secret or to protect someone. For example, a child who has been abused by an adult will often lie to protect that adult. Often the child fear that she will be punished if she tells. If you suspect your child is lying about a serious matter:
- Give her a lot of reassurance that she will be safe if she tells the truth.
- Do your best to convince him that you can make things better.
You might need to get professional help in this case. Your GP or school counsellor can give you advice on who to contact.
A ‘white lie’ is a harmless lie told with good intention – usually to protect the feelings of another person.
One research study found that children as young as three were able to tell white lies. This happened particularly when the parent coached the child in advance. For example, before your child receives a gift, you encourage her to say she likes it. In this situation, some children will still tell the truth (‘I don’t like it!’) even if they understand that this might hurt somebody’s feelings. This is probably because children of this age and stage are more focused on moral development, which encourages truth-telling.
As children get to primary-school age, they start to become quite skilled at telling white lies. By adolescence, children regularly tell white lies to protect their friends’ feelings.
Parents telling white lies
Telling your child a white lie can be harmless. Some white lies can help protect a child’s innocence, promote creative development or teach them important social skills.
For example, you might tell your child that your cuddles have magic powers that will fix your child when he’s hurt himself. Some parents like to play games like finding fairies in the garden. Others pretend to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.
Although they’re harmless, white lies should be used sparingly. The distinction between a white lie and a true lie – one designed to avoid punishment, for example – might not be as clear to children. Children who are used to hearing lies are more likely to tell lies themselves.
We’re often tempted to tell children white lies to manage behaviour. For example, you might say, ‘I can’t buy you those lollies because I didn’t bring any money’. Such strategies might work as a one-off, but can also back-fire if you get caught out (with a purse full of money). They can also lead to arguments and lack of trust. It’s more effective to manage children’s behaviour in honest and productive ways. See our tips on encouraging good behaviour for more ideas.