Why do kids lie?

All kids lie sometimes, for different reasons and at different ages. Here's how to encourage your child to be honest.

close up photo of a young girl
Photo credit: / mamahoohooba

It's impossible for your 2- or 3-year-old to grasp the concept of lying: At this age, children don't yet understand the difference between fantasy and reality. They don't realize that fibbing can help them, say, avoid doing things they don't want to do.

By the time they're about 5 to 6 years old, however, kids understand both that lying is wrong and that it may get them something they want in the moment – and your strategies for managing untruths will probably need to change.

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Many lies stem from a lack of social or problem-solving skills, which young children have yet to learn. Remember that every child lies – it's just a matter of when you'll catch yours spinning a tall tale or denying a misdeed you caught them in the act of committing.

Try to resist the impulse to punish or get angry, which will only escalate the issue without solving it. Instead, see lying as an opportunity to work on the cause behind the lie.

Why kids lie: Ages 3 to 4

Lying usually begins at around 3 years of age, though your child's first lie may come a bit earlier or later.

When children this age lie, they aren't trying to deceive you on purpose. Your child may simply grasp that you can't read their thoughts – and it's exciting to realize that they can say something that's not true and you won't realize it's a lie. At the same time, they don't realize that lying is wrong.

At 3 and 4 years old, lies may stem from:

  • Wishful thinking – or an active imagination. Children have a rich fantasy life, and they may think that what they conjure up in their heads is actually true. In other words, your child may not understand the moral concept of lying, or the difference between truth and falsehood. For example, when your child firmly declares that they didn't break your vase, they're not really trying to get away with something. They're just wishing it didn't happen – so much so that they're convinced they had nothing to do with it.
  • Exploration and curiosity. When kids discover that they can lie, they might simply be curious to find out what happens when they do. Your child might hide their scarf and tell you they have no idea where it is just as you're heading out the door, just to see how you react. In that situation, fibs are part of an exploration of ideas.
  • A need to test limits. Kids are knee-deep in testing parental boundaries and their own power at this age. Your child might come to you and, without batting an eye, ask to watch TV, claiming they haven't watched anything today – meanwhile, you already know they used up their daily screen time hours ago. As frustrating as it is, this kind of truth-stretching is normal.
  • A desire to avoid disapproval. Your youngster knows that a misdeed will disappoint you. Rather than face your displeasure, they may choose to lie about it.
  • Fear of punishment. Similarly, if you saw your child spill their juice, but they deny it, your little one naturally wishes they hadn't made a mess and doesn't want to face consequences for the slip-up.
  • A craving for attention. Your child has figured out that telling a tall tale is a surefire way to get a response out of you – even if it's a negative one. For example, saying they swam all the way across an Olympic-sized pool alone is a way of seeking approval for an impressive (though unlikely) accomplishment, rather than an act of conscious lying.

Age-appropriate consequences for lying: Ages 3 to 4

Punishments for lying at this age aren't useful. Instead, use your words to help your child understand the difference between right and wrong and develop problem-solving and communication skills.

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Your goal is to set boundaries, encourage open communication, and provide a safe and supportive environment for your child to express feelings and needs.

Here are some strategies to try when you catch your child lying:

  • Try to understand your child's point of view. If your little one sneaks a candy bar and then denies eating it (with chocolate smeared on their mouth), they're not a bad person; they're simply trying to get around the fact that they can't have everything they want.
  • Offer an alternative. Model how you would have liked your child to respond. For example, if they deny responsibility for spilling their juice, offer a paper towel and say, "Let's clean up the juice." This way, you avoid getting into a battle about who spilled the juice, and you turn your child's attention toward the issue of getting the mess cleaned up.
  • Talk about why lies are bad. Once you've addressed the unwanted behavior that led to the lie, explain why lying is hurtful. It's good to get into the habit of discussing these issues, but keep it brief to avoid making your child feel guilty or ashamed.
  • Be consistent. Be sure you stick to the rules you've set out for your family, every time. This is especially important when a child's lies are linked to testing boundaries and limits.
  • Avoid labels. Never call your child a liar – it will just make them feel bad about themselves and possibly lead to a self-fulfilling repetition of the behavior in the future.

Equally as important in dealing with lying is gently nurturing your child's instinct to be truthful and fostering an environment where honesty is prized. Some ways you can do that:

  • Minimize the opportunities for lying. Instead of asking your child whether they forgot to clean up their toys, state what you already know to be true: "I see a lot of toys on the floor. Please help me pick them up and put them away."
  • Be a good role model. It's a parent's job to be a role model of trust. Make honesty your best policy, and try to avoid telling half-truths yourself. For example, if your child's due for a vaccine, don't tell them the shot won't hurt. (They'll know in a second that it does.) Also keep your word – and when you can't, apologize for breaking a promise.
  • Foster an environment of love and trust. Kids may worry that you'll love them less when they make mistakes. Explain that you'll love them no matter what, including when they do something wrong.
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Why kids lie: Ages 5 to 8

Between the ages of 5 and 6, kids lie more often – though they'll usually 'fess up quickly if you ask for more details. With age, lies become more complex, as children begin to understand how other people think and can use more words to express what they want. At this point, it's often harder to catch them in a lie.

Just like younger kids, older kids may lie to avoid getting in trouble, test your limits, or get your attention. They may also lie to:

  • Get what they want. Kids may realize that they can avoid doing their homework or cleaning up their room – at least initially – if they say they don't have these responsibilities in the first place.
  • Cope with social pressure. As kids get older and have more complex social interactions, they may lie to boost their confidence and seem more impressive to their peers.

Age-appropriate consequences for lying: Ages 5 to 8

Starting at around age 5 or 6, kids understand the difference between fantasy and reality – which means they know that it's wrong to lie. At this point, it's especially important to help foster an environment of trust, where your child feels loved and supported and doesn't feel inclined to lie to avoid harsh punishments.

If you do catch your child lying:

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  • Introduce the option of telling the truth. If your child occasionally tells a knee-jerk lie because they're scared of getting in trouble, you might consider offering them some time to think before responding. For example, if your child says they didn't accidentally spill paint on the floor, you might tell them, "I'm going to the kitchen for five minutes to start dinner. If you change your mind and decide you did spill the paint, you can tell me and I won't be upset." Remember, this tactic will only work if used infrequently. Don't let it become a default response that allows your child to avoid consequences.  
  • Address the lie. Let your child know that you know they haven't told the truth, and that lying isn't okay because it makes it more difficult for people to believe them in the future.
  • Put it in context. Try to get your child to think about the consequences of lying. For example, you might say, "How do you think Mommy would feel if I told her I made dinner for us tonight, and then she came home and we had nothing to eat?"
  • Lay out the future consequences. Let your child know it's okay to make mistakes, but if lying continues to occur in the future there will be specific consequences. Then be sure to stick to your word.
  • Follow through with appropriate consequences right away. For more serious or habitual lies, follow through immediately with separate age-appropriate consequences for lying and rule-breaking that align with the behavior. For example, if your child repeatedly forgets to clean up their toys and lies about it, you may ask them to put away their toys (the rule-breaking consequence) and then take the toys away for the rest of the day (the lying consequence).

For relatively harmless, fantastical-style lies, there are a couple of other tactics you can try:

  • Know when to ignore it. If your child occasionally tells an innocuous lie to boost their self-confidence, sometimes it's best to ignore the untruth and divert the conversation to another topic.
  • Offer a do-over. If your child regularly makes up stories or exaggerates the truth, you might call these yarns "fibs" and point them out upfront every time they come up. "That sounds like a fib. Let's start over from the beginning."

To prevent lying in the future, it's critical to foster an environment where your child feels safe telling you when they did break the rules or made a mistake. In addition to sticking to the same strategies that you used when your child was younger, try these tips:

  • Don't beat around the bush. If you know your child made a mistake, sometimes it's best to avoid the opportunity to lie in the first place. Say, "I know you hit Sam. Let's talk about why it happened and how we can avoid it in the future."
  • Let your child know it's okay to make mistakes. Before confronting a child about breaking a rule, establish the importance of telling the truth. You could say, "I'm going to ask you something. I may not like your response, but everyone makes mistakes. I will always love you. I want you to think about telling me the truth before responding."
  • Reward truth-telling. In addition to praising your child when they do tell the truth, let them know that they will always face fewer consequences if they tell the truth about a misdeed than if they lie about it.
  • Talk about your own mistakes. Tell your child about a time that you messed up and how you dealt with it – for example, when you didn't finish a work project in time but talked to your boss about the situation honestly. Because your boss trusted you, they helped you to come up with a plan to get your work done. If you lied or made excuses, your boss may not have been so understanding. This helps your child begin to understand that everyone makes mistakes, and that honesty is the best policy.
  • Help your child to think strategically. Now that your child is beginning to understand the difference between wrong and right, explain that every choice has options – and that making decisions can be difficult. Talk through a specific example and how different decisions can result in different outcomes. For example, not doing their homework may mean they have more time to play tonight. But by not doing their homework, they'll miss out on an important learning opportunity.
  • Build your child's self-esteem. If lying seems linked to self-esteem issues, try tactics to boost your child's confidence. Teaching your child new skills, such as how to play checkers, can be an opportunity to bond while offering your child a confidence boost. Pay attention to your child's strengths, such as in music or physical activity, and provide opportunities to work on those skills by signing your child up for a singing or gym class. And offer positive praise for their efforts, not the outcomes, such as "I'm proud of you. I can see you've been practicing your spelling – you haven't given up."
  • Connect with your child. A great way to prevent behavior problems of all kinds is to connect by regularly spending quality, uninterrupted time with your child. Try to set aside 10 or 15 minutes every day that you label "Mommy/Daddy and Henry time" (you can even set a timer, to avoid debates about when it's over). Put away your phone and let your child decide what to do. Then really be present in that moment with your child, whether that's building a Lego tower together or just watching them play.
  • Read a book together. Children's stories that deal with the issue of honesty can be a great way to bring home the concept of truth-telling. Some good ones for this age group are Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, by Diane DeGroat; Arthur and the True Francine, by Marc Brown; and Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, by Evaline Ness.
  • Know when to ask for help. If you've tried all of these tactics and your child's lying is regular and automatic, it's a good idea to reach out to their pediatrician. A mental health professional can help a child establish the boundaries between right and wrong, as well as establish if lying is linked to other issues.
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Colleen de Bellefonds
Colleen de Bellefonds is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist. She's raising her toddler daughter and newborn son with her French husband in Paris.