Why Children Lie
“My 5 year old told me he went on a field trip today and he didn’t. Why would he lie?”
"My 8 year old said she’d done her homework, but I found it under the bed unfinished.”
"My 10 year old broke the lamp in the living room but he swore he didn’t.”
"My 15 year old told me she would be at a friend’s house after school but when I called she wasn’t there.”
Why do children lie? From toddlers to teens, when parents catch their children in the act of lying, it brings up feelings from anger to fear. Some parents wonder, “What did I do wrong?” Others feel devastated by the broken trust. And most experience some feelings of anger or outrage, “I can’t BELIEVE s/he’d lie to me like that.”
The reasons children lie are varied, and may even be tied in to a particular stage of development. Let’s take a look at the different reasons children lie and what parents can do to encourage their children to tell the truth.
Creative Storytelling. As toddlers and preschoolers, children are developing their creative storytelling skills, and may be unable to understand the importance of telling the truth vs. telling a story. My favorite book that illustrates the art of creative storytelling is the Dr. Seuss book “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.” In this book, a boy is asked to tell his father what he saw on the way home from school. Unfortunately, it was a rather dull walk home, so the boy embellishes the story to include a large parade, elephants and other fantasies. Young children often enrich their stories in this way to capture adults’ attention and to experiment with storytelling. Parents should not label this as lying. Storytelling is an important part of our children’s creative development. We can, however, say something that lets them know that we know it’s a story: “Wow, I like the stories you tell. Can you draw me a picture to go with that?”
Pulling the wool over an adult’s eyes. Another reason children lie is to see if they can “pull the wool over an adult’s eyes.” This is a form of experimentation, or testing. Children wonder, “Can I make Mom or Dad believe this really happened? (Or that it didn’t happen as the case may be!) My favorite cartoon shows a young child, Trixie, playing with her mother’s scotch tape. As the panels progress, Trixie gets covered in the tape until Mom arrives. “Trixie!” she exclaims, “Have you been playing with my scotch tape again?” A thought balloon appears over Trixie’s head and she thinks, “Gee, if she doesn’t know, I’m sure not going to tell her!” Children often tell lies like this when we ask them questions to which we already know the answer. A child is alone in the house. The lamp is broken. Saying, “Did you break the lamp?” tempts the child to lie. Like Trixie, he thinks he may be able to pull the wool over Mom or Dad’s eyes, because why would a parent ask a question to which they already knew the answer? The best way to eliminate this type of lying is to make direct comments instead of asking questions: “I know you broke the lamp,” “I see that you didn’t do your homework.”
Escaping harsh or inconsistent punishment. Studies indicate that children are more likely to lie when they have been harshly or inconsistently punished. When punishment is fear based and / or retaliatory in nature, when a parent’s tone of voice and body language are harsh and judgmental, and when parents criticize the child instead of the behavior, the child may lie to avoid punishment. If you believe that your child lies for this reason, it’s a good idea to brush up on discipline skills that are respectful and offer logical consequences for your child’s actions. While every parent “loses it” from time to time, making that your modus operandi is likely to have negative results. Remember to use “either / or” choices and keep your tone of voice firm: “Either finish your homework, or there will be no TV on school nights. You decide.”; “Either play with the football outside or I’ll take it away.” Sometimes, especially with teens, you may need to phrase your concerns a different way, “I need to know that you’re safe after school. How can we work it out so that I don’t have to worry?”
Gaining independence. Finally, it’s not unusual for children to lie when they feel that their natural drive for independence is being thwarted. Children experience a need for greater independence at various points in their development: 2-3 years, 5 years, 9-10 years and adolescence. If parents have difficulty “letting go” and giving their children more independence at these ages, children may lie to gain that independence. 2- 3 year olds often show their desire for independence with the words, “I do it!” and may want to dress themselves, open doors by themselves, push the elevator button etc. Encouraging this type of independence, even when it means things take longer, is critical for this age group. When children are 5, they often begin to rebel against the routines in their lives. Beginning at this age, children should be given more of a voice in the household. This doesn’t mean they’ll always get their way, but they should feel listened to and, when the request is reasonable, be allowed to change their routines. At 9-10 years children feel the need for more physical freedom. This is an opportunity to begin discussing things that will help them feel more independent so that they don’t take inappropriate risks such as leaving the schoolyard unaccompanied. Adolescents need physical independence and also desire privacy. Respecting their need to keep some of the details of their lives to themselves is a key component to encouraging truth telling in other areas. Regardless of your child’s age, lying to gain independence is often a sign that you must reevaluate the amount of control you’re exerting in their lives and make changes accordingly.