Why do children lie?
Children might lie to:
- cover up something so they don’t get into trouble
- see how you’ll respond
- make a story more exciting
- experiment – for example, by pretending something that happened in a story was real
- get attention or make themselves sound better
- get something they want – for example, ‘Mum lets me have lollies before dinner’
- avoid hurting someone’s feelings – this sort of lie is often called a ‘white lie’.
When do children start lying?
Children can learn to tell lies from an early age, usually around 3 years of age. This is when children start to realise that you aren’t a mind reader, so they can say things that aren’t true without you always knowing.
Children lie more at 4-6 years. They might get better at telling lies by matching their facial expressions and the tone of their voices to what they’re saying. If you ask children to explain what they’re saying, they’ll usually own up.
As children grow older, they can lie more successfully without getting caught. The lies also get more complicated, because children have more words and are better at understanding how other people think.
By adolescence, children regularly tell white lies to avoid hurting other people’s feelings.
Encouraging children to tell the truth
Once children are old enough to understand the difference between true and not true, it’s good to encourage and support them in telling the truth.
You can do this by emphasising the importance of honesty in your family and helping children understand what can happen if they lie.
Here are some tips:
- Have conversations about lying and telling the truth with your children. For example, ‘How would Mum feel if Dad lied to her?’ or ‘What happens when you lie to a teacher?’
- Help your child avoid situations where they feel the need to lie. For example, if you ask your child if they spilled the milk, your child might feel tempted to lie. To avoid this situation you could just say, ‘I see there’s been an accident with the milk. Let’s clean it up’.
- Praise your child for owning up to doing something wrong. For example, ‘I’m so glad you told me what happened. Let’s work together to sort things out’.
- Be a role model for telling the truth. For example, ‘I made a mistake in a report I wrote for work today. I told my boss so we could fix it’.
- Use a joke to encourage your child to own up to a lie. For example, your preschooler might say, ‘My teddy bear broke it’. You could say something like, ‘I wonder why teddy did that?’ Keep the joke going until your child owns up.
Tall tales: how to handle them
Pretending and imagining are important to your child’s development, and it’s good to encourage this kind of play. ‘Tall tales’ don’t need to be treated as lies, especially for children under 4 years.
If your child is making up a story about something, you can respond by saying something like, ‘That’s a great story – we could make it into a book’. This encourages your child’s imagination without encouraging lying.
Deliberate lies and lying: how to handle them
If your child tells a deliberate lie, the first step is to let your child know that lying isn’t OK. Your child also needs to know why. You might like to make a family rule about lying.
The next step is to use appropriate consequences. And when you use consequences, try to deal separately with the lying and the behaviour that led to it. For example, if your child drew on the walls and then lied about it, you might have a consequence for each of these things. But if your child is lying to cover up a mistake like spilling a drink, you might just decide to use a consequence for the lying and then clean up the mess together.
Here are more ideas to handle deliberate lying:
- Talk calmly with your child about how lying makes you feel, how it affects your relationship with your child, and what it might be like if family and friends stop trusting your child. This emphasises the difference between what happens if your child is honest and what happens if they’re dishonest.
- Always tell your child when you know that they aren’t telling the truth. But try to avoid continually asking your child if they’re telling the truth. Also avoid calling your child a ‘liar’. If your child believes they’re a liar, they might as well as keep lying. You could say something like ‘You’re usually very honest with me. But I just can’t understand what happened to the last cupcake’.
- Make it easier for your child not to lie. You can start by thinking about why your child might be telling lies. For example, if your child is lying to get things they want, consider a rewards system that lets your child earn the things instead.
It might seem that your child keeps lying, no matter what you do. But if you keep praising your child for telling the truth and you also use consequences for lying, your child is less likely to lie as they get older.
Lying about serious issues
Sometimes children lie or keep secrets about serious issues. For example, children who have been abused by adults or bullied by other children often lie because they fear that they’ll be punished if they tell.
Here’s what to do if you suspect your child is lying to protect someone else:
- Reassure your child that they’ll be safe if they tell the truth.
- Let your child know you’ll do everything you can to make things better.
Some children might lie frequently as part of a larger pattern of more serious, negative or even illegal behaviour like stealing, lighting fires or hurting animals.
If you have concerns about your child’s behaviour, safety or wellbeing, think about getting professional help. Talk to your GP or school counsellor for advice on who to contact.