Why do kids lie, and what can parents do?

Parenting is challenging and rewarding, fun, frustrating, confusing, and tiring and, for many people, the most joyous part of their lives.

It also comes with many questions, like ‘Why won’t you sleep? Why did you put weetbix on the dog?! Why don’t you like apples today? You loved them yesterday!’ And also the realisation that we don’t always have all the answers, for example I have no idea who would win a race between a wolf and a velociraptor (if anyone has the answer to this let me know; my 5 year old will be very happy!).

One of the more troubling questions we have to deal with as parents is “Why is my child lying?” and the follow on of how to help them to stop.

1. Little lies & their intent

As a first step, consider if you really need to stop every lie? Kids, just like adults, sometimes tell white lies. They learn from us that occasionally it’s ok, or even polite, to lie a little when it is not malicious, and the intent is to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

Generally, as a parent, telling your child some white lies is harmless. Again, the intent is important; for example when you’re encouraging your child to choose their own clothes when getting dressed, and then wholeheartedly compliment them on their choice of wildly clashing colours! But it is important not to do it too often, for a number of reasons:

• Our kids learn from us – when they know that we tell lies, it’s easy for them to think that lying is ok

• Kids, especially younger kids, can’t easily tell the difference between a white lie, told to protect someone’s feelings, and a ‘real’ lie they’re telling to keep out of trouble

• Lying to your child to avoid a meltdown, for example saying the park is closed, or the shop is sold out of ice cream, is sooo tempting (and I have absolutely done it too). But it isn’t teaching your child the right behaviours, such as how to deal with disappointment, and it might teach them that lying is a good way to solve problems, or that their parents can’t always be trusted.

2. True lies

In young children, especially under fours, it’s important to encourage imaginative play and pretending. Recognising that some of the more ‘out there’ stories your child tells you are part of play and can be treated as just that, stories, will make parenting that bit easier.

Where it’s moving beyond storytelling and into the realms of telling the grown-ups what they want to hear, there are a few questions to consider in deciding how to approach this type of lying.

• Why did my child tell this lie? What do they get, or avoid, from lying about this?

• What do I want them to do instead?

• How do I help them learn to tell the truth – what’s in it for them?

For example – why did my five-year-old lie about drawing with a marker on the back of the curtains?! Well, as best I can understand it, he realised from my really cranky tone, and the hands on hips, that I wasn’t happy, and that no good was going to come from confessing it was him!

What I wanted him to do instead was really two things; not draw on anything other than paper, and not lie when he makes a mistake.

How can I help him learn this? By being clear that, when something goes wrong, telling the truth helps us to fix it. And I also help (when I remember) by not doing the ‘who did this awful thing’ type questions but rather focus on how we need to fix the problem, and how telling the truth makes it easier to fix things straight away.

The key is to help your child to get it right, rather than focus on catching and punishing them for doing the wrong thing. It’s also good to show and explain to our kids that we find it hurtful when they lie; this is not only to support them learning not to lie, but also to encourage and reinforce our kids knowing that they can tell us anything.

3. Encouraging honesty

• Ensure that everyone in the family knows the importance of telling the truth, and that the grown-ups are modelling honesty.

• Reward good behaviour; where your child comes to you and tells you something they did wrong or something they’re worried about, thank them for telling you and then help them fix it. For example, if something got knocked over and broken, or spilt, tell them what they need to do to clean it up, or help them clean up depending on their age. If they upset a friend at school or got into trouble in class, talk through what they can say or do to show they’re sorry and make amends, and ensure they follow through with apologies etc.

• Where your child is making up a story or telling a tall tale, a good response is to acknowledge it’s a story and enjoy the imagination involved. For example, the time my older kid seriously had me believing that some marine biologists had brought a huge tank to school with an epaulette carpet shark, which had been found injured and was recovering before being released back into the wild, and that they had left the tank at school for the kids to study! Something I could have said would be ‘wow, I love the idea of carpet sharks at school. What other sharks would we have in this story?’

• What I accidentally did in the carpet shark example was use another technique instead. Epaulette carpet sharks are my favourite! So, when I found out that there wasn’t really one at school for my beautiful budding marine biologist to show me, I was genuinely disappointed! As mentioned before, letting our kids know that we’re hurt and disappointed when they lie is a good strategy.

• If you notice that your kid is telling lots of ‘bragging’ stories, about how they ran 10 times faster than everyone, or are able to do amazing superpower feats etc, maybe they feel they need to be better, or cooler, or somehow ‘more’. Finding things to praise and reward your child for can help give them a boost; try to ‘catch’ them doing something well, or some great behaviour, and tell them how proud you are of them for it.

• And, as with so many behaviours, label the behaviour and not the child; if you call your child a liar they may feel that’s what they are, so they may as well do it. Instead of saying ‘we’re really disappointed that you’re a liar, say ‘we’re really hurt when you lie to us’.

This is a really big and interesting topic, and the strategies vary a bit depending on the age of the child. If you google ‘why kids lie’ you’ll find lots of further reading; this link has some extra information across all aspects of the topic, including suggestions for parents of kids with ADHD. https://childmind.org/article/why-kids-lie/

I’d be delighted to hear about any other strategies that you have tried, or to discuss ideas. If you feel that your child is lying consistently, has other serious, negative behaviours, or if you have concerns about your child’s safety or wellbeing, it never hurts to ask for help or advice, for example from your GP, paediatrician or school counsellor.

Part three of this blog series ‘Help; I don’t want to keep lying!’ will be out next week and will look at some things you can do if you are concerned with your own behaviour. If this is info you feel you could use right now, get it touch & I’ll be happy to give you some strategies.

Thanks for reading, Louise @ Cara