You’ve probably seen videos on social media of angelic-looking children covered in chocolate ardently denying that they had ANYTHING to do with the missing cupcakes. (Or perhaps you’ve witnessed this in action at your own home!) These sweet-faced kids look up at their accuser, eyes wide, and insist that they are innocent, even when the evidence is all over them.
Even very young children are capable of telling untruths. But why do they do it? Read on to learn more about why children lie and what you can do to stop it.
Here’s the good news: research suggests that children who begin to lie at an early age are actually smarter than their peers. But that might be cold comfort when you’re unable to trust whether your preschooler is actually telling you the truth about whether or not they already had dessert.
What motivates children to lie? As children grow, they develop a “theory of mind,” or the awareness that others have different feelings, desires, or beliefs than them. Lying is simply a byproduct of this growth. When, for instance, your three-year-old tells you earnestly that Daddy said she could have a cookie, she recognizes that bringing Daddy into the equation will make her claim more valid, and more likely to result in extra dessert.
Small children also have a very casual relationship with reality. If your child insists that they have an imaginary sibling or that they’re actually a dog, they’re not exactly lying; instead, it’s just a byproduct of their lack of understanding about the differences between fact and fiction.
As children grow older, telling tall tales become more complicated. “I did my homework already,” your child insists as he walks out the door to play basketball with the other kids in the neighborhood. A quick check of his backpack tells a different tale. When the teen years start to loom, your child will become more secretive. This is a totally normal developmental milestone, but you might find it unsettling. And it can become a safety issue, if you find out that they weren’t where they said they would be.
But when your child comes home with tales of strange happenings at daycare or preschool, how do you separate truth from reality? Did a classmate bring in their pet iguana or was that just a byproduct of your child’s active imagination? You don’t want to dismiss a genuine issue as a fabrication, but you also don’t want to put too much stock in your child’s imaginative ramblings. What can you do to set your child on the path to honesty?
The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth
How do you teach your child that the truth is the preferable option? In this case, harsh punishment isn’t necessarily the best course of action. When you consistently punish children for lying, they just get better at it— which is probably not the outcome you’re seeking!
What do you do? How do you guide them toward the truth?
#1: Be a Good Role Model. Are you modeling honesty in your home? Say, for instance, that your mother-in-law calls; do you grimace and whisper, “Tell her I’m out!” Do you shave a couple of years off your child’s age when it’s time to buy a movie ticket? You’re your child’s first (and best) role model for honesty. If they don’t think that honesty is valued in your home, they’ll be less likely to adhere to it themselves.
#2: Talk About the Difference Between Truth and Lies. As we said above, young children have difficulty differentiating fact from fiction. Say something like, “If I told you that the grass is orange, would that be a lie or the truth?” Talk to them about telling the truth and the importance of being a trustworthy, truth-telling person.
This could also be a good time to talk about the differences between truth and brutal honesty. It’s not nice to tell Grandma that her breath smells bad, even if it’s strictly the truth. These conversations are just the beginning of helping your children understand empathy.
#3: Offer Positive Reinforcement When Your Child is Honest. Does your child ‘fess up when they created a marker masterpiece on the coffee table? Take a deep breath and praise them for coming clean, then enlist their help in the clean up efforts. When they realize that they get praise for telling the truth, they’re far more likely to do it.
If you see others behaving in an honest manner, point it out to your child. Whether it’s on TV, in a movie, or in your day-to-day life, be sure to explain why this behavior is appropriate and expected.
#4: Get to the Bottom of the Lie. Rather than leaping into punishment, try to find out why your child told the lie. Are they trying to impress you? Are they avoiding negative consequences? Are they telling you what they think you want to hear? A gentle discussion and a reminder that you can— and should— double check the facts (as well as a reminder that you love them unconditionally) should set them on the right path.
#5: Outline the Natural Consequences. Explain to your child that frequent lying can make it difficult for you and others in your child’s life to trust them— this is the natural consequence associated with telling tall tales. Lack of trust means that the child might not get privileges that they could otherwise be enjoying. “I can’t trust you to turn off the iPad after 15 minutes, so you won’t be able to watch your show on your own.”
Is Your Child’s Lying a Problem?
If your child’s lying feels like it’s out of control, it might be time to mention it to their teacher. It’s possible that they’ve already noticed an uptick in falsehoods in the classroom. Your child’s teacher is committed to helping your child learn and grow at a developmentally-appropriate rate; perhaps he or she can shed some light on the issue.
Does your child have an exceptionally active imagination that fuels their tall tales? Your child’s teacher has probably noticed that. Does your child seem particularly eager to avoid disappointing authority figures? Perhaps their teacher has some insight into this.
At ABC’s & 123’s Learning Centers, we’re committed to creating a safe, happy learning environment for your child. Our experienced staff of certified teachers use customized curriculum and developmental activities that provide engaging educational experiences for each of our students.
Eager to learn more about what ABC’s & 123’s Learning Centers can do for your family? Click here to get more information today!