Parenting: Dealing with Lying, Part I: Why Kids Lie and What to Do
By Jonathan D. Sherman, LMFT

Lying is often a normal part of a child’s development. However, if not dealt with effectively it can turn into a habit that can cause problems for them at school, at home and even carry on into adulthood.

Why children lie

There are many reasons why children lie depending on their ages. Very young children (ages 3-4) do not always separate fantasy from reality. Also, at this age, they may appear to lie when actually they have simply forgotten, especially if it has been a while since the incident happened.

Younger children (ages 5-6) are starting to get a better grasp of the differences between fantasy and reality. They also have a better understanding of what is right and wrong where they can feel guilty when they do something inappropriate. They may begin to lie to avoid punishment or being disapproved of. They may also lie to get attention.

Children ages (7-11) know the difference between fantasy and reality. Children at this age lie to avoid punishment or chores. They also are becoming more socially aware and may lie to be polite. They may also lie to avoid disappointing their parents or teachers.

Teenagers understand the difference between fantasy and reality and consequences for lying. They are also adept at it. While a lying teen is certainly disconcerting not all teen lying is indicative of them being involved in forbidden or dangerous acts. Often they tell lies to avoid embarrassment, protect their privacy, to be more independent, to get what they want, to avoid doing chores or receiving consequences.

What parents can do

Prevention first is the rule. Here are some suggestions for establishing an environment where honesty is encouraged.

  • Keep your word. Kids learn integrity by seeing it. There is no such thing as inconsistent integrity. Teach and live honesty.
  • If you do lie, admit it and correct it immediately. Remember the cardinal rule of child development is “Monkey see. Monkey do.”
  • Young children can not tell the difference between “white lies” and serious lies. Maybe they are on to something we as adults could emulate.
  • Keep rules simple, reasonable and consistent. This gives them fewer reasons to feel like they “have” to lie. It also makes your parenting job easier.
  • Praise them when they tell the truth, especially when it was hard for them. Make it easy for children to be honest.
  • Assume the truth is being told first. Otherwise, 1. mistrust will be bred, 2. they will learn to become sneakier, and 3. they will learn that telling the truth does not really matter anyway.

Even after all your best prevention efforts remember that most kids lie on occasion. Use this as a teaching opportunity. Do not ignore it or punish the child. Instead address it by disciplining the behavior. The distinction between punishment and discipline is an important one that I will address in an upcoming column. Here are some suggestions for disciplining the lying behavior.

  • Stay calm. Do not take the lie personally. Choose to respond effectively, not angrily.
  • Seek out why your child is lying. Assume the best. Do not accuse. Instead, inquire.
  • Emphasize that the behavior was not okay, but that your child is okay. You love her, not her behavior. Thus consequences are given to discipline (e.g., teach, instruct) the child’s behavior not to punish the child. This keeps the child more open to confessing next time. Remember, punishment breeds fear and more often than not the child will be more likely to conceal faults and lies to avoid punishment.
  • Do not force a confession. Give your child a chance to tell the truth. He may need time alone to consider his choices. Let patience prevail over anger. We want to help our children to open up, not force them to. This is important because young children grow into teenagers and we will need this skill all the more then. If we do not develop it now we can not expect to wait to develop it then when it is much harder.
  • Do not call your child on a lie in front of others. Respect and discretion breeds the same.
  • Do not lecture. Ask her what her thoughts are about what impact lying has on herself and others. Share your observations with her when she is done.
  • Wonder instead of accuse. “I wonder who did this?” opens people up more to the truth since they are not put on the defensive than “Did you do this?” does.
  • Don’t play games or give your child a chance to practice further lying by asking, “Where were you just now?” If you know the truth, say it and deal with it.
  • If the lies are about getting attention let your child know that he does not need to make up stories for you to love him. Seek little and big ways to give him some extra doses of attention. Attention is a powerful medicine.
  • Share the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Again, do not lecture, but share and inquire.
  • Adolescents need a good deal of privacy. Give them what they need within reason and they willl have less to “hide” from you.

Have you tried these or other suggestions in the Greatness in Relationships column? Let me know how it worked at You can find more articles and tips at

Watch future columns for more strategies for creating greatness in your relationships. The “Great Relationships” eZine has been launched. This eZine contains further articles, ideas and strategies for creating great relationships as well as announcements for free community workshops in The Relationship Wellness Series. To subscribe to this eZine simply email with “subscribe” in the subject line.

Jonathan Sherman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Relationship Consultant specializing in creating "greatness in relationships." He is experienced in assisting people learn to improve their marriages, their parenting and themselves through skill development, life coaching, overcoming depression and anxiety, stress and anger management, and addiction recovery. He teaches extensively on a wide range of relationship topics. He is the founder of Bardos Relationship Consulting. He is married to a skillled husband trainer who has truly earned her keep. They live in eternal bliss (okay, fairly peaceably) with their four children in American Fork, UT. You may reach him at 801.787.8014, or at
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