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My Kid's a Liar

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Dr. Cara Gardenswartz: All children will lie during different stages of their development. While this is normal, parents can become very upset about their child lying and can feel like their child is being "bad." Once parents understand that lying is an expected behavior, they can treat it more calmly and appropriately.

toddler covered in paint lying

How lying is handled, of course, depends on the situation, the age of the child, and family rules. But it is always important to try to figure out why your child is lying and how to accordingly approach his behavior in a proactive, non-shaming, constructive way.


Lying will happen in the preschool years. Preschoolers do not yet have the cognitive ability to understand that lying is wrong. Preschoolers generally tell three kinds of lies:

• Fantasy

Children will make up stories. Their imaginations are exploding and they do not yet know the difference between fantasy and reality. Their lies may also represent wishes. They may say, "I am the biggest, oldest kid at school." With fantasies, parents can listen, and mirror back to them their wish: "You really want to be big and strong."

• Gain

Children will also lie to get something. An example is a child saying she doesn't feel well so she can stay home from school and watch TV (since she has learned that when she was sick before, there was ample TV time). Parents should explain to their child, without overreacting, that it is important to tell the truth. A good way of dealing with lying is to positively reinforce times when your child tells the truth.

• Avoiding Punishment

A key motivator for lying is to not get in trouble. For example, your child will say that they didn't break the lamp. She may even blame it on someone else. In the preschool years, the best thing a parent can do is to tell your child that accidents happen and kids make mistakes, but that you expect her to not play with the lamp. Tell her that she can always tell you the truth.

Since preschoolers do not understand that lying is wrong, it is not wise for parents to punish their young child during this stage. Instead, each incident can be a teaching opportunity to tell your child that lying is wrong. Even with this guidance, however, from time to time your kids will lie.

Older Children (School Age)

By the time your child is in elementary school, she is able to comprehend that lying is wrong. For this reason, parents should now have consequences for when their children tell lies. That being said, expect some lies.

Reasons for lying include:

• To avoid punishment

• To feel important (stretching the truth to get admiring feedback)

• To get something they want

• To not get peers or family members in trouble

How to handle lies for your school-aged child:

You should have a discussion with her about why she lied. You can use pretend or real examples of times you lied and the consequences you faced. Be sure to emphasize that kids who tell the truth will be trusted, and that kids who lie will experience negative consequences. You can also talk about the benefits of telling the truth with your own examples. Parents can also discuss examples of truthfulness and lying that they see on television or read in books.

To prevent lying:

• Figure out why your child is lying. See if there is a specific pattern to your child's lies. For example, if your child lies to impress his friends, think about ways that he can feel good about himself; maybe develop a list together about his positive traits and things he can do to be kind to his friends (and in turn get positive feedback for more appropriate behaviors).

• Have specific rules and consequences for lying. These rules should be discussed with children before they are enforced. Lying should be treated differently than misbehaving. In fact, when children misbehave but are honest about it, their punishment should be less severe. Parents should praise their children for their honesty.

• Don't shame children for lying. Parents can let their children know that they are disappointed that they lied, but not label the child as "bad." Make sure to differentiate their behaviors from who they are.

• Have open, honest communication with your child. Make sure YOU don't lie. If your child sees you lying, he will model your behavior. Your truthfulness is the best example for him.

• If you feel that your child's lying is excessive, or you get similar feedback from other people such as your child's teachers, you should seek professional help for his lying.

next: Pee Pee and Poo Poo
9 comments so far | Post a comment now
messymom May 5, 2009, 3:46 PM

It helps to know that lying is not because my child did something “bad” and that for my toddler i don’t need to “punish” her.

ame i. May 5, 2009, 10:04 PM

I think a 12 year old telling a non-truth can be classified as lying, but when a 2 year old does it, it’s different. They have a bit more trouble telling the difference between pretend play and lying, even if they are “play-acting” that they didn’t do they naughty thing they actually did do.
That made perfect sense, didn’t it? ;)

Sue May 5, 2009, 10:27 PM

Very young children really don’t understand what it means to lie and why it is wrong. It takes a while to explain the concept to them. I find that it is better to reward them for telling the truth than punishing for lying.

Anonymous May 6, 2009, 10:51 AM

Moms- we are all on the same page with this one. I feel like we are learning and coming together

Marjorie May 16, 2009, 11:58 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Gardenswartz’s comment in “my kids a liar’ and appreciate all the ongoing reminders from her about important issues - though I fall behind on reading them. Would like add one thing — if you know your kids has told a lie, never ask them ‘did you do this or say that’. By asking they know you are not happy about the matter and so you are inviting a lie. Rather, confront them openly and say “I know you did this or said that…………..” Now, how are we going to address this or let’s talk about why this happened and what we are going to do.

Anonymous May 17, 2009, 12:03 AM

Good point marjorie

anonymouse May 18, 2009, 9:46 PM

my favorite part of this article is “You can use pretend or real examples of times you lied and the consequences you faced.” Make something up in order to teach your kids not to make something up. Perfect.

messymom May 20, 2009, 2:59 PM

yo anonymouse- parenting requires creativity. you have to try to relate to your kids and stories help!

Anonymous May 27, 2009, 7:06 PM

So, my question is, how do I deal with a child who’s been made to feel bad about himself from the time he was little because my husband expected so much more from him than he should have? He constantly lies about everything. He lies about what time he gets up in the morning, about if he brushed his teeth or not, if he drew the picture or traced the picture, if he started the fight at the park or not…..I mean everything! I’ve tried to tell my husband that it’s stemming from constantly being in trouble for everything from the time he was little and he’s just trying to avoid getting into more trouble by lying but it’s backfiring on him but how do I fix this now? Is it too late?

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