Liar, liar, pants on fire: The truth about children’s lies

Dealing with lies while teaching children the value of honesty.

There are a number of reasons why children lie.
There are a number of reasons why children lie.

The truth about lies

Children develop through three stages of lying:

  1. Primary lies. Around age two or three, children start to tell lies to hide wrongdoings. At this stage, children are not able to craft lies specific to the listener, meaning they might tell an adult that a cow came into their apartment and ate all the cookies. Being that adults have much more advanced thinking than young children, it is easy to spot this whopper.
  2. Secondary lies. More realistic and believable than primary lies, children around age four tell secondary lies. The difference at this stage is that children are able to tell lies tailored to the understanding of the listener. So instead of saying a cow ate the entire plate of cookies, they might say their brother did it, as they understand this is more believable for adults.
  3. Tertiary lies. These lies are more thought out, harder to pick out and include supporting statements to convince the listener. Your child might tell you their brother ate all the cookies because he refused to eat his vegetables at dinner.

Why do children lie?

  • Sometimes lies are accidental. Young children often cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy. A nightmare brings about real fear, even though the danger is not real. In that same way, if they are pretending there’s a cow in the house, that is real to them. So, when they tell you a cow ate the cookies, they might actually believe it to be true.
  • Lying is a social norm. In a lot of situations, lying is considered acceptable. In social discourse, we lie daily so as not to offend other people. This is something we teach our children to do whether or not it is intentional. We guide them to avoid saying true things that might hurt others, or teach them to lie in order to spare their feelings (i.e., “Dinner was delicious!”).
  • Misunderstanding good lies and bad lies. Young children do not have a moral understanding of lying. As they grow and develop, they start to be able to tell the difference between mistakes and “bad” or antisocial lies.
  • Children are problem solvers. Just like other methods of problem solving, sometimes lying is a viable option for children (and adults too). If telling the truth means getting in trouble, disappointing a parent or hurting someone, children may lie to avoid punishment or disappointment.

Dealing with tall tales

Try these tips from the Michigan State University Extension to manage lying:

  • Walk the walk. Children learn from watching their parents – demonstrate the value of honesty by telling the truth. Be honest and open with your children and avoid making promises you might not keep. Keep your language specific, “I will try to make it before your T-ball game starts, but I might be few minutes late.” When you get caught in a lie, own it. If you acknowledge your mistakes and explain what you should have done instead, you are teaching your child a valuable lesson.
  • Acknowledge it, but don’t shout it. If the cookie jar is empty and your child’s face is smeared with chocolate, you don’t really need to ask if she ate the cookies. Address the issue without blaming, “It looks like you were hungry for a snack. Next time, please tell me and we can find a healthy snack together. We save cookies for after dinner.” Now you’ve given your child a way to solve their problem without shaming them or giving them another opportunity to tell a lie. When acknowledging a lie, remember to focus on specific behaviors and not on the character of your child. If one lie branded someone a liar, we’d all be stamped with a giant “L.”
  • Look for a solution. If we stop thinking of lies as purposeful deceit and instead as solutions to problems, we can get to the root of the issue. Just like adults fib to solve problems, like telling your boss your great aunt is visiting to avoid a work event, children use lying as a way to get what they want or avoid what they don’t want. If your child is lying to solve a problem, think about how else you might solve it. Can you change any family rules or routines? Involve your child in the search for a solution.
  • Forgive and guide. Instead of policing your child, help them learn a better way. While punishment may seem like a logical reaction to lying, research shows it actually makes it worse. Children who fear a negative consequence or punishment may actually be more inclined to lie to avoid the negative effects. Punishing lies creates better liars. Instead, demonstrate the value of honesty and help your child learn other ways of dealing with problems.

For more information about positive discipline, child development, academic success or parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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