Learn the facts and fictions about why children lie and how to encourage honesty.
Published: November 19, 2021
By: Jan Pierce
Somewhere around the age of 3, when children begin to understand parents may not know what they actually did or didn’t do, your precious little angel may begin to tell whoppers. “Baby Jack made that mess,” or “I played with a dinosaur today and rode on his back.”
Before you panic, thinking your child is destined for a life of crime, let’s take a look at when children lie, why they lie, and how to teach them to tell the truth.
Children tell lies for a variety of reasons. They’re afraid of getting in trouble, they want attention, they’re testing boundaries, or quite often with the very young, they just enjoy a good story and haven’t yet learned the distinction between fantasy and real life.
If a child breaks a family rule or makes a big mess, he may be afraid of the consequences. Parents need to first discern whether the infraction was intentional or a normal childhood accident such as spilling milk. When parents see the lie was meant to cover a normal child “accident,” it’s best to reassure that we all make mistakes and work together to clean it up. When the lie was meant to cover breaking a family rule, it’s best to set a consequence in line with the infraction — perhaps forgoing play with a favorite toy for a while. Setting reasonable consequences builds trust yet reinforces the family value of both the rule and truth-telling. When consequences involve physical punishment, children are much more likely to lie to avoid the pain.
Some “lies” are merely pretending. Wouldn’t it be fun to have an imaginary friend, or be able to fly to the moon and back? This is normal behavior and part of a child’s growth and development. Young children are learning right and wrong and need to experience the difference between truthfulness and lying. Plus, we adults read them stories filled with creativity, pretending and magical acts. So, children need experience and practice in separating fun, creative fantasy from real life.
Children begin to experiment with telling fibs at about age 3 when their language is developed enough to express their thoughts clearly. They are experimenting with the lines between fact and fantasy. They understand they may displease adults with some behaviors and want to avoid being in trouble.
From ages 4 to 6, children can tell more sophisticated lies. However, when questioned about the circumstances, most children will eventually relent and tell the truth.
As children grow older, they learn they can tell a lie and not get caught. They’ve learned more about how other people think and know when their fabrication is believable. That’s why it’s important as parents to take the time to teach honesty as a family value from babyhood on up.
Whenever your child tells an untruth, you have the opportunity to teach. If they share a creative idea as fact, “My doll says she is hungry now,” you have the opportunity to teach, “It would be fun if your doll could talk, wouldn’t it?”
If a mess is made and a fib told, “The dog spilled the juice,” you can say, “It’s OK if you accidentally spilled. We all spill sometimes. Let’s clean up the mess.”
And when lies are blatantly told to cover up a broken rule, “I didn’t hit my brother,” then a fair and reasonable consequence is imposed to set the boundary. “We don’t hit, and our family tells the truth.”
HOW TO TEACH TRUTH-TELLING
Everyday family life offers countless opportunities to mold and shape our children’s moral code. We all want our children to be honest, upright citizens. Here are some ways to teach them to be truth-tellers:
- Be a good role model. You can talk all day about being honest, but if your children hear you tell a lie, they’ll know you don’t mean it. Even small fibs told by parents are confusing to children trying
to navigate the rules of the home.
- Notice and encourage whenever truth is told. Both in real-life situations and when watching television or videos, there are opportunities to notice who is telling the truth and who is not. “Oh, dear, that character is telling a lie. What will happen now?” Or, when your child does tell the truth, make a point of complimenting him or patting her on the back. Applaud truth-telling whenever it happens.
- Help children understand the difference between truth and fantasy. Enjoy fantasy tales with your children but talk about reality. “It would be fun if animals could really talk, but it’s just pretend.”
- Tell your children you know they can do the right thing. Children need to hear your praise and encouragement. “I know you can do the right thing.” And “I know you can make the right choices.”
- Talk about the importance of being honest. “When people don’t tell the truth, they feel bad. They may be worried or feel guilty. It’s so much better to tell the truth.”
- Play games and do activities that promote honesty. Play a game in which you draw a card with a sentence written on it. Read it aloud for everyone to hear. Is it real-life or fantasy? Or role-play with puppets that either tell the truth or lie.
- Avoid tempting your child to lie. Explosive anger or asking, “Who did that?” will tempt a child to lie to avoid trouble. Whenever possible, stay calm and get to the bottom of the problem. Additionally, we want children to trust us enough to tell the truth in the event of any kind of dangerous or abusive situation. Children have to know it’s safe to admit a problem.
- Share childhood memories that help teach honesty. Kids love to hear stories of their parents as young children. Tell how you learned to tell the truth and resist lying. Share hard lessons learned.
- Read books that lead to a discussion about truth and lies. We all know about the boy who cried wolf. Take the time to find stories that teach the importance of telling truth. Some recent ones are: The Honest to Goodness Truth by Patricia McKissack and Giselle Potter; What Should Danny Do? By Adir Levy; and Scout’s Honor: A Kid’s Book about Lying and Telling the Truth by Tiffany Obeng.
We want our children to thrive as responsible citizens. We want them to be people of character and moral goodness. Honesty is one of those character traits that takes some work to instill. It needs to be held up and valued in our lives.
The value of creativity and fantasy also has a place in our lives, but children need to be taught the difference between fantasy and reality. So, remember, an occasional fib is a normal part of a child’s life, and for most kids, it doesn’t become a habit. With patient teaching and understanding, your child will master truthfulness.
Jan Pierce is a retired teacher and author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun.