Why Kids Lie... and what parents should do about it
Both of my children are excellent liars. My three year old can rip a page in the book we are reading together, then look me straight in the eye and say, without blushing “I didn’t rip it, I fixed it”. I consider this to be very advanced.
My five year old son lies just as much, although he doesn’t quite have his sisters flare. He tends to overdo it with elaborate diversions, such as “don’t look over here dad there is nothing to see”.
If these stories sound familiar, then the good news is that your kids are normal. In fact, lying is normal for both children and adults. You probably lie all the time, and if you don’t, you probably never get invited to dinner parties and play dates.
Does this mean we should just let our children lie? Definately not, but once we accept that lying is a normal part of development, it becomes easier to engage with the child in a gentle and constructive way.
Why do children lie?
According to John Sommer-Flanagan & Sara Polanchek from Montana University, children begin to lie as means of exploring reality. This can start as early as two, and might involve ellaborate stories about their day. John and Sara recommend that, at this stage, a positive parental response is to identify the feelings the child is expressing, and respond to that, and at this stage, it’s ok to just role with the story.
From about the age of 3-4, children will begin to lie more intentionally, and it is helpful to understand the reasons for this. John & Sara list self-defence, denial, immitation, ego boosting, profit making, hostility, self-image, and kindness, as some common reasons why kids tell intentional lies. All of these can be true of many adults as well, and it is the lying for denial, hostility, and self-defence that I see most often in my work as a family support worker. It is the lying for hostility that, in my opinion, can be the most harmful, and most frustrating as a parent. It is important to realise that if a child is lying as a way of venting frustration, he may not have other, more constructive, ways of dealing with difficult emotions.
What should parents do about it?
John & Sara suggest the best strategy is to “get curious, not furious”. This is a common theme accross many of their parenting talks, and I think it’s an exellent foundation for building healthy relationships with our children (and partners). Have a go at identifying the purpose of the lie, and encourage your children to reflect on this as well.
Child: “I didn’t break it, it was all ready broken”
Parent: “I wonder if you are worried you might get in trouble, and that’s why you are saying you didn’t do it?”
The child might respond well to this, or they might not, the important thing is that you have allowed them to confront the truth safely. Be warned, it is very tempting as a parent at this point to try and force the child to tell the truth. You might say “Tell me the truth, did you break it?” or “I’ll give you one last chance to tell me what happened”. We say these things even though we all ready know the answer, and so, for the child, it’s a set-up. John & Sara recommend that instead of setting our children up to lie, you start the conversation with what you do know, and offer them the opportunity to come clean with the rest.
Arguably, the most powerful way of promoting honesty in your children is to model honesty yourself. Find opportunities to demonstrate how being honest isn’t always easy, such as when you make a mistake, and talk through it with them.
“I broke you’re daddys favourate coffee cup this morning, I’m afraid of telling him because I know it will make him sad, but it’s the right thing to do”
Opportunities like this allow you to both model honest behavior, and promote the value of honesty. Children will appreciate that it’s hard for parents to be honest as well sometimes, but they do it anyway. Ultimately it is what we do, not what we say, that will have the biggest impact on our child’s development, and lying is no acception.
Sommers-Flannigan, J., & Polancheck, S. (2018). Why kids lie and what to do about it. Podcast published by University of Mantana. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umt.edu/practicallyperfectparenting_podcast/27/
Rowan Aish, co-founder of Parent Village, Family Support Worker, Father, Surfer