Why Kids Really Lie, and How to Stop It

mother talking to toddler

By Aviva Patz for Healthy Kids from Teeth to Feet

Learning why kids lie is the first step in getting them to stop.

Let's break this down by age group.

boy face

The Age: Toddlers

Why Kids Lie: Kids as young as 2 and 3 may tell simple lies (e.g., “I didn’t try to sit on the sleeping dog”), usually to avoid something unpleasant or to get something they want. But they don’t always grasp that fibbing is wrong.

Coming clean: Don’t accuse your child of wrongdoing and ask her to fess up; that just sets her up to lie. Instead, focus on why her action is problematic. “When the dog is sleeping, he gets scared when something lands on him. He squealed because he was startled, and he may even be hurt.”

girl covering her mouth

The Age: Preschoolers

Why Kids Lie: Fear of punishment is still a driving force behind lying. But at this stage, kids have rich imaginations (“Elmo ate a cookie in my bed!”) that easily transform wishful thinking to reality. Boasting (“I can do 1,000 somersaults in a row!”) is the kid version of keeping up with the Joneses.

Coming clean: Don’t bother arguing that Elmo is a puppet on TV. Simply focus on what happened — someone ate a cookie in the bedroom, which isn’t allowed — and suggest a way to fix it: “Should we go clean up those crumbs together?”

smiling girl

The Age: Elementary school kids/preteens

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Why Kids Lie: By this age, lying has become a misguided survival tactic. It’s not at all unusual for kids to lie occasionally to avoid punishment and skirt their chores, but now they’ll also lie to boost their self-esteem, impress their friends and otherwise assert control.

Coming clean: Try to determine what drove your child to lie, and help her find better ways to address the problem. If she said she did her chores, you may need to adjust your expectations; if she insists there’s no math homework (because she’s having trouble in math), offer to do it together.

Parents need to teach the value of honesty, says Goldberg. Let your kids know that lying can hurt their credibility and relationships. Thank them when they tell the truth, even if it’s ugly. And model honesty yourself.

{ MORE: How You Know You're Winning at Parenting }

Aviva Patz has written for many national publications, such as Parents, Parenting, Health, Self, Redbook and Marie Claire. She is a frequent contributor to Healthy Kids.

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Why Kids Really Lie, and How to Stop It

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9 comments

  1. Ciarra says:

    I just found this I’ve been having the worse time with both mine lying I’ve tried so many different ways to break it my two year old in particular she’s the absolute worse to the point every one in the house double checks with each other. She doesn’t lie like a normal two year old she fabricates an entire back story. It’s pleasant she’s so intelligenthat but disturbing how she chooses to use it. If I’m upstairs and my mom’s down and my mom tells her to ask me if she can have something she’ll come upstairs to ask for something she knows I’ll let her get rather then what she really wants then go tell my mom I said yes. When we discovered this and started asking her about it stories such as well my bear said it’s OK to tell you that or I’d forgot what I wanted and got mixed up. Literally she understands she’s lying and has decided that that gets her things regardless of later punishments.

  2. Marilyn says:

    My little brother tries to lie lol but we know he’s bluffing.

  3. nichole says:

    we handel lying a little differently in our home. when my girls were toddlers, if they lied, we would explane to them they were lieing. like if they kicked a toy. if they said they didnt, ide explane i saw them doing it and when you tell me you didnt, thats lying, and it gets you in lots of trouble and hurts peoples feelings. then ide ask if they wanted to tell me the truth now, did you kick the toy? and usually they would tell the truth and we would explane why it was wrong to do what they did, but didnt punish, so they wouldnt think the truth led to getting into trouble. once they were old enough and understood what lieing was, (did do ages, because my older one seems to grasp the concept younger then my other one did), it became tell the truth, you get your timeout/punishment for what you did wrong, but lie to me, you got your punishment and you got a spanking for lying. it worked well so far for my kids. i hope it will for my next one, but as all kids are different, time will only tell.

  4. nichole says:

    oh my goodness, we had a horrible time with my step-daughter lying! it was because her mother would not bother to force her tell the truth. after repeating her lie a few times, her mother would give up and just tell her to go away or something telling her next time she lied she would get a time out or spanking or something. but she never followed through with it, or any punishment she threatend really,we had lots of issue for a while because of that… is your step daughter with her mother ever? because maybe thats where shes getting the idea its ok to lie. it took us a cupple years to completly break my step daughter down from complusive epic lying to the normal amounth you can expect from a child her age.

  5. Grace says:

    my nephew lies continuely, doesn’t matter to him that his lying is hurting our relationship-i don’t know what i can trust him to be honest a bout.he is 11, he also disobeys me, oh he lies with us and has since last year,i still don’t know how to handle his lies and disobediance

  6. casey says:

    My step daughter lies about everything. Usually my husband makes it a point not to punish her if she tells the truth but doubles up when she lies about things like cutting her hair (but daddy I didn’t know the scissors were there)

  7. joselynn says:

    my little girl is the queen of tall tales, very detailed too

  8. celeste says:

    my kids are very good at saying little lies…but we try and teach them that its just going to get them in more trouble.

  9. definitely am trying to break my stepson of this habit

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