One behavior that parents of young children most fear is lying; what parent hasn’t had the image of their child growing up to be a criminal, living a life full of deception in which they can never be trusted, all because the child didn’t tell the truth in pre-school? Some parents think their child is incapable of telling a lie and thus believe everything they hear. The reality is that children do not always tell the truth. The other reality is they need to earn their parents trust by hearing them say: “I need to know that I can trust you”.
Kids in general are not very good at deception and so can’t sustain a lie for very long. Parents asking a few extra questions can go a long way to getting to the truth. Children learn to lie to get out of trouble, and also because they may have seen adults they admire be less than honest. Sometimes they lie simply because they are young. Other reasons young children might not tell the truth are to attract friends, make life sound more interesting, or to get attention from caregivers.
Very young children, including preschoolers have great imaginations, which should be encouraged, create invisible friends, and most enjoy being silly. Help your child distinguish between fact and fantasy by saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if that really could happen?” Parents shouldn’t punish their preschooler for not knowing the difference between imagining and lying.
Do not be too concerned if your preschooler makes up stories but overall seems happy and is doing well in other areas of his life. Parents should be concerned if fantasy and making up stories takes up the better part of the child’s day. Typically, this type of storytelling dissipates as the child gets older, usually around age 5. Be clear with your child though, that you expect them to tell the truth and express your appreciation when they do. Your goal with this age child is to help them understand the difference between telling the truth and lying, not to punish. On occasion you might skip a punishment when your child gets caught in a lie if he admits to it and expresses remorse.
Elementary school aged children lie for similar reasons: To get out of trouble, impress other children or to get something they want. The difference is they know lying is wrong. They too may have seen their parents or other adults lie and feel that it is therefore acceptable behavior. Children who feel they are under a lot of pressure may lie as well.
Here are some things you can do to help your child be truthful:
- Make your feelings known about the importance of telling the truth: “I am sad and disappointed when you tell a lie and want to be able to trust you.”
- Tell your child that you need to be able to trust him and telling the truth is important in gaining your trust.
- Don’t overreact.
- Try to find out the reason the child lied. Calmly speak to your child about the incident and why it is important that you know what happened.
- Say, calmly, “There is no reason to lie to me, let’s try to figure it out together.”
- Always thank your child for telling the truth.
- Let the child know there is no reason to lie to impress anyone.
- Establish an appropriate discipline response when lying continues.
If your child continues to tell lies, you may need to seek professional advice so the habit doesn’t continue into their teen years when it becomes even more dangerous. Remember that your behavior is the greatest teacher for your children. Modeling truthfulness even when it isn’t easy will set an example that children can follow.
Written by: Terri Worthington, Extension Educator, Geauga County, email@example.com
Reviewed by: Jim Bates, Extension Field Specialist, Family Wellness, firstname.lastname@example.org
Resources: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Facts for Families #44, Lying and Children,
Parenting Press, Honesty and Truthfulness Parts I and II,