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When Did Your Child First Tell a Lie?

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OK, so every Wednesday in our morning meeting, we're always buzzing about Tuesday night's "Parenthood" on NBC. (Anyone else addicted?) In last night's new episode, Julia tried to teach little Sydney about lying -- which had us curious as to how to really handle this kid issue ....


In last night's "Parenthood," Julia was shocked that Sydney had the audacity to lie to her about breaking a vase. Stunned, Julia turned to other family members to ask when their kids told their first lies. To teach a parental lesson, Julia didn't clean up the mess from the broken vase. Instead, she taped up the room -- leaving it to be cleaned up by the person who committed the crime.

Crosby questioned Julia's little lying lesson, and it had us curious as well. Here's momlogic expert Dr. Cara Gardenswartz's take on the whole thing:

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.

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/her 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: 

1) 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 then mirror back to them their wish: "You really want to be big and strong."

2) 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's sick, she gets 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. 

3) To Avoid Punishment. A key motivator for lying is to not get in trouble. For example, your child will say that she 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 her 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.

toddler covered in paint lying

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 at this age 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 from your school-age child:

Have a discussion with your child about why she lied. You can use pretend or real examples of times that you yourself lied -- and the consequences you faced. Be sure to emphasize that kids who tell the truth will be trusted, but kids who lie will experience negative consequences. You can also talk about the benefits of telling the truth, using 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 lists 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 from 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 shouldn't label the children as "bad." Make sure to differentiate kids' 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.

• Get expert help if necessary. 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 your child.

next: Life in Prison for Woman Who Forced Boy to Fondle Her
2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jen May 2, 2010, 9:42 AM

I just wanted to say I LOVE LOVE LOVE the new show on NBC, Parenthood. It really is a great show.

sew mom June 12, 2010, 8:53 PM

Seriously? I think your advice is given in such a way that will guarantee a need for your profession. By not punishing even a young child who lies, (nose in corner, time out, or early bedtime)you are allowing it to continue. If you don’t teach them how the world will shame them and label them liars and not believe them when it counts, they really will need counceling for their compulsive lying.

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