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When Children Lie

Sooner or later it happens to every parent: Your child tells you a lie. Here's how to handle it.

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Don't set the stage for a lie.

One day, Billy's mom notices that $20 is missing from her purse. Then she spots a new toy on 10-year-old Billy's dresser. Next to the toy is $5 and a receipt for $14.56. Interesting, she thinks, since Billy was complaining of having no money only yesterday, and he doesn't get his allowance until tomorrow. She asks Billy, "Where did you get the money for this toy?" He stammers, "I found it."

All kids lie. Telling an occasional lie and being a liar are two different things. All children lie at one time or another. However, few children actually become liars.

Young children, especially preschoolers and early elementary-age kids, often stretch the truth. But these exaggerations have nothing in common with lies. They happen because the child has a rich imagination, is more than a tad impulsive, and is a natural "ham." The more creative and imaginative the child, the more likely it is the child will tell outrageous stories. The stories themselves are harmless and don't qualify as true lies.

Even in the case of children who lie habitually, it's usually less a sign of moral weakness or psychological problems than a matter of mismanagement by parents. Kids who lie habitually generally lack a sense of accomplishment. Lying fills this void and develops into a game.

Actually, most lies can be prevented. Even a child who has become hooked on lying can be "cured" through understanding and proper handling.

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What Not to Do

Don't give a child a chance to lie when you are reasonably sure of the facts. For example, Billy's mother could have told Billy, "Twenty dollars is missing from my purse. There's a new toy and $5 on your dresser. I'm sorry, but the toy, the money, and your free time for the next few days now belong to me."

Unfortunately, Billy's mother decided to question him about where he got the money. Doing so set up a game of "hide-and-seek" in which Billy controlled the thing being hidden -- the truth. A parent who plays this game yields power to the child. It is, after all, the child who now determines the rules.

By asking a child a question to which you know the answer, you are actually setting the stage for a lie. (Of course, when you're truly uncertain about the facts, you have no choice but to question the child and then decide whether he or she is indeed telling the truth.)

Punishment in Perspective

The more children are punished for lying -- especially if the punishments involve physical pain -- the more they will lie to try to avoid being punished. It makes sense that a frightened child is more likely to lie.

It's better to punish a child by taking away privileges, such as a bicycle or outside play. Instead, make the consequence short but meaningful. For example, tell your child that he or she can't play outside for two days. This works better than grounding your child for a week and then letting it slide after a few days.

Also, it's better to punish the act and disregard the lie. Don't promise a child that things will be easier if he or she tells the truth, or that the punishment will increase for a lie. This sort of "plea-bargaining" is extremely confusing. It introduces the idea that the child may lie or implis that you expect him or her to lie. Remember, don't let a lie distract you from whatever it is that the child did wrong.

Finally, don't get bent out of shape when a young child tells an obviously fantastic story. The great storyteller Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, once said, "When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not."

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